To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ambassador College's Modern Honeycomb Has Been Destroyed


By Adrian Glick Kudler, June 18, 2013




And another underrated but beautiful mid-century building bites the dust: we've heard from a few places (including these photos) that the honeycombed Fine Arts Building at Pasadena's Ambassador College has been demolished. The Ambassador was run by the Worldwide Church of God from 1947 through 1990; the Fine Arts Building was designed by Peter J. Holdstock and built in 1966 (it matches the adjacent Science Hall). (The campus was used pretty mouthwateringly in Tom Ford's mid-century porn film A Single Man). In the mid-aughts, there were big plans to redevelop the whole campus, but they all sort of petered out in the recession; in 2010, OC developer City Ventures picked up part of the project and revived plans to build condos and senior housing. Sarah Gilbert of the LA Conservancy's Modern Committee tells us via email that the project includes demolition of three buildings--the Fine Arts, Science, and the Hall of Administration (also by Holdstock). ModCom asked Pasadena to reconsider the demolitions when it extended approvals in January 2012, but no dice. Goodbye Fine Arts, we'll miss you.

Brazilians Spend as Much as 26 Percent of Their Income to Ride the Bus


By Roberto A. Ferdman, June 18, 2013

 Brazilians Spend as Much as 26 Percent of Their Income to Ride the Bus

 A bus driver looks at demonstrators during one of the many protests around Brazil's major cities in Sao Paulo.

A $0.09 hike in the price of a single bus fare in Sao Paolo ignited the biggest protests to hit Brazil in over 20 years. As we noted earlier today, the bus fare hike was merely the last straw in a long list of public grievances about the shaky Brazilian economy.

But it’s worth noting that Sao Paolo’s bus riders are being majorly squeezed by fares. A fare price that sounds pretty minuscule in dollar terms actually takes up a huge chunk of Brazilian incomes for those at the bottom (and presumably, those who most need to use the bus).

The $0.09 hike brought the price of a single bus fare in Sao Paolo up to $1.47. Assuming Brazil’s city dwellers ride the bus twice daily—to and from work during the week, and to and from anywhere during the weekend—that’s $82.46 a month. For Brazilians making the minimum wage of $312.33 a month, that’s a whopping 26% of their income.

In Brazil’s lopsided economy, public funds are propping up a public transportation system that the public can’t afford.

Seriously, We Have to Stop Giving Away Free Parking to the Disabled


By Emily Badger, June 18, 2013


  Seriously, We Have to Stop Giving Away Free Parking to the Disabled

There is no good way to ask this without sounding like a jerk, but here it is: Do disabled people really need free parking? Yes, they need convenient parking spaces. But cities all over the country have oddly conflated drivers in need of close curbside access with people too poor to pay for it. The two groups are not necessarily one and the same. Worse, free parking for the disabled invites all kinds of wildly offensive misuse. As a result, the policy is arguably bad for urban parking systems, definitely bad for city coffers, even bad for the environment.

The best evidence we've seen for this politically touchy case comes from some fascinating ongoing research out of the University of California Transportation Center, by Michael Manville and Jonathan Williams. We've written previously about their findings from several on-the-ground surveys of disabled placard use in Los Angeles, which were published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. But they've since written a downright entertaining account of the study for a wider audience in ACCESS, the transportation center's magazine.

They argue, for starters, that free disabled parking threatens to foil the high-tech performance pricing systems now coming online in cities trying to manage parking demand in real time. It doesn't do much good to dynamically price parking if a large share of people  pay nothing for it at all (cars with disabled placards typically can park for free in any metered spot). As Manville and Williams write in ACCESS:
A price system works only when people who don’t pay don’t get the service. Every day we rely almost unthinkingly on prices to allocate toasters, televisions, and gasoline, but this entire edifice would crumble if 20 percent of the population could take as much gasoline as they liked, whenever they liked, regardless of price.
The question, though, is whether or not there are really that many people doing this – either because they're actually disabled or faking it – to disrupt the parking supply. Anecdotal evidence is pretty common, as are nightly news stakeouts (Manville and Williams mention one CBS hidden-camera report filming people hanging their disabled parking placards outside of a fancy L.A. gym, and then "vigorously working out"). It's also evidently really easy to obtain these things in California. Even optometrists and chiropractors can certify people to get them.

To measure how pervasive this is, Manville and Williams actually sent observers out to count parking spots, disabled placards, and unpaid meters in 13 different neighborhoods across the city with varying parking rates. They surveyed about 5,000 meters, or 13 percent of the city's total, at multiple and different times of day. Out of 11,300 observations, 61 percent of the meters were occupied, but fewer than half of those cars had paid and 27 percent were showing disabled parking permits. The first chart at right shows the breakdown of all of the occupied spaces (in some cases, people did not pay because the meter was broken, or they had some other kind of government permit).

The second chart shows only the unpaid spaces that were occupied. Fully half of them contained cars using disabled placards. The larger issue, though, is that those drivers don't just pay nothing for the time they park; they park for longer, too.
Nearly 40 percent of all of the meter-hours in the study were taken up by cars with disabled placards. They have no reason to leave. The observers watched one man park a car with a permit, load a bunch of boxes onto a dolly, push it down some stairs – and then leave his vehicle on the street for the next 10 hours.

Over the course of a single day in March of 2010, on a single block of Flower Street in L.A.'s financial district, the researchers also tracked every minute of meter occupancy and use, yielding this chart:

Cars with disabled placards ate up 80 percent of all of the meter time that day, and on a block where parking should cost $4 an hour. Instead, the city was effectively making 28 cents an hour.
Manville and Williams aren't arguing that we should abolish disabled parking all together. Rather, they argue that there's no good reason to make it free, and plenty of reasons not to. As they put it:
Redistributing income through placards makes sense if most people with disabilities have low incomes; if low-income people with disabilities regularly use parking meters; and if most people with disabled placards are disabled. There is good reason to doubt all of these statements.
Or, to make the case in even more relatable terms:
When a wealthy investment banker breaks his leg kitesurfing and winds up on crutches, it makes sense to let him park in a convenient spot. It doesn’t make sense to let him park everywhere for free.

Should You Commute by Citi Bike? One Man's Hilariously Detailed Analysis


Henry Grabar, June 18, 2013

 Should You Commute by Citi Bike? One Man's Hilariously Detailed Analysis


Dorothy Rabinowitz isn't the only one making videos about Citi Bike, the New York City bikeshare program that debuted last month.

Filmmaker Casey Neistat has turned a more analytical eye towards the program (he uses numbers), with the premise: Getting to work in New York City is a pain in the ass. Is Citi Bike a pain in the ass?
Neistat has a considerable reputation in the cycling community. His video on the ease of stealing a bike, picked up by the New York Times, are instant classics, and his demonstration of the ills of New York City bike lanes has been viewed more than 6 million times.

So what does he think of Citi Bike? I won't spoil the suspense. Like all of the Neistat's videos, it's fun to watch.

ACA 8: A Direct Assault on Prop. 13


By Jon Coupal, June 16, 2013


For millions of California homeowners, Saturday was a day that will live in infamy. Without a single public hearing, the California Assembly passed Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 8 (ACA 8), the most egregious attack on Prop. 13 ever to come out of the Legislature.

ACA 8 would repeal Prop. 13’s requirement that local “special taxes” (taxes intended for a specific purpose or purposes) be approved by a two-thirds vote. Instead, special taxes imposed for the repayment of local bonded indebtedness would be reduced to 55%. The ostensible justification for ACA 8 is to make it easier to finance local “infrastructure.”

There are several reasons why ACA 8 will inevitably inflict severe harm on California homeowners. First, while state bonds are repaid out of the state’s general fund -- into which most Californians contribute through income or sales taxes -- the same is not true for local bonds. Local bonds, usually referred to as “general obligation” bonds, are repaid exclusively by property owners. That means that voters who do not own property can vote to raise taxes on those who do.

Second, making it easier to pass local bonds will only add to California’s debt crisis. A recent study from the California Public Policy Center calculated total government debt in California as being $1.1 trillion. This figure dwarfs the $27.8 billion “wall of debt” Governor Brown himself has acknowledged as part of budgetary borrowing. Making it easier to incur local debt for “infrastructure financing” raises the obvious question: Does any sane person believe that California needs even more debt?

Third, while building local roads and libraries may be a worthy cause, the interests backing ACA 8 are hardly motivated by the goodness of their hearts. The usual cabal of unions, construction interests and the Wall Street bond industry all are chasing more tax dollars. The amount of money at stake -- your money -- is staggering. They care not a whit for the broader interests of California’s fiscal health or the interests of citizen taxpayers.

Is there any good news here? Yes. First, the passage of ACA 8 occurred in just one house of the Legislature. It must also pass in the Senate. There are a lot of reasons to believe that passage in the Senate is anything but automatic. The details of the politics here are too complex to go into at this time. But suffice it to say that liberal members of the California Senate might not be so quick to drink the anti-Prop. 13 KoolAid as did their colleagues in the Assembly.

Second, we are heartened by the fact that all Republican members of the California Assembly voted against repealing one of Prop. 13's most important protections. We say this as non-partisans as more than a third of HJTA’s members are registered Democrats. However, it has usually been the Republicans who have stood up to defend Prop. 13.

Just three weeks ago, my weekly column was entitled “Will Republican Legislators Betray Taxpayers?” While Republican support for homeowners can’t be taken for granted, on Saturday the Republicans in the Assembly forcefully defended Prop. 13 on the floor of that chamber. We couldn’t be more pleased for their courage for standing up to the special interests.

Finally, because Prop 13. defenders -- in this case, Republicans -- spoke as one voice, this forced Democrats who portray themselves as “moderates” to either stand up to their ultra-liberal leadership and vote “no” on ACA 8 or cave to the pressure of Speaker Perez and the special interests and vote “yes.” This time, the so-called “moderate” Democrats failed -- miserably. ACA 8 passed with zero votes to spare.

While passage of ACA 8 is a horrible insult and injury to homeowners, at least now we know who our friends are. Come election time, when some “moderate” Assembly Democrat tells you how much he or she represents citizen taxpayers and homeowners, you will now be armed with the truth. After all, legislative votes should have consequences. Especially, at the next election.

Helping to Enhance Riders' Experience


By Nicole Schlosser, June 2013


In the last year, transit systems have ramped up their smart phone offerings to provide riders with much more than real-time arrival information. This is happening just as the number of smartphone owners in the U.S. rose to 54% at the end of last year, according to comScore. In 2012, 46% of Americans reported using them, based on study  findings from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Additionally, one in four Americans owned a tablet by the end of 2012, reported the study.

Transit agencies have been able to enhance riders’ experience on their systems in a number of ways, ranging from safety to the ability to get those last-minute grocery items on the way home from work.
Here is a sampling of some of those apps and their features.

With the aim of providing a security tool that lets riders anonymously report crimes or suspicious behavior to transit police, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) released its iWatch app in February.

Lt. Mike Gettings, transit police, GCRTA, says the app gives riders options to report an incident via smartphone, text message, or calling and leaving a voice message — the system records the person’s voice, translates it to a text message and sends it to transit police.

Development company iThinQware created the app and the iWatchRTA.net website, taking into consideration factors that are unique to transit security and GCRTA’s transit police beat. People can also send notifications and messages through the site.

GCRTA also worked with the developer to create the look of the app, its ease of use and a marketing plan.

Currently in the second phase of its marketing campaign, transit police are encouraging people to use the app as part of GCRTA’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign.

Often, a rider might see something on a train, but if they picked up their phone, they might not feel comfortable talking to the police dispatcher, Gettings explains. The app allows them to simply text the information, so they can not only be anonymous to police officers, but also on the vehicle.
“The person in the vehicle [causing the problem] may be sitting two seats away from them. They’re not even aware they’re sending this to us,” he adds.

While iWatch was installed to use as a tool to notify police of crimes, people often send alerts about basic quality-of-life issues. That’s a good thing, Gettings says.

“We want this app just in case there’s a major incident, like somebody leaves a suspicious package, something happening out of the ordinary,” he adds. “Thankfully, we haven’t received any of those tips.”

The app has helped people point out minor issues and enabled transit police to respond. At this point, the majority of incidents reported have been other riders violating rules against eating, drinking, smoking or playing loud music on the buses. In the past, riders reporting these offenses had to go talk to the driver, and the offender would see the person making the complaint. The operator would then have to call the dispatcher.

However, with the app, riders no longer have to get out of their seats and bring attention to themselves. The driver, who often might not even be aware of the situation, isn’t required to make any phone calls.

Dealing with the minor incidents lets people know that the agency is serious about them. Then, major incidents often don’t occur.

“If we take care of the smoking, eating and drinking, then people are less likely to [commit] more serious crimes,” Gettings says.

Meanwhile, as part of a revived initiative started in 2008 to combat sexual assault and harassment on the transit system, Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) introduced a downloadable “See Something,  Say Something” app. The app allows riders to send a message and photo of the offender to transit police. As an added safety feature, the app automatically disables the phone’s flash.

MBTA transit police suggest that when passengers can safely do so, they take a photo with their phone of the offender and send it to them, Chief Paul MacMillan, MBTA Transit Police, says. “If we don’t know the individual — [many] are chronic offenders — we will send that picture to the media and ask for the public’s help in identifying [them].”

Car-share program, telecommuting and Wi-Fi access seen as way to loosen commuter gridlock in Marin


By Mark Prado, June 16, 2013

 MINI in Manhattan courtesy Zipcar.


A car sharing program is being considered by the county's transportation agency as a way to make taking public transportation or vanpools more palatable for commuters.

The Transportation Authority of Marin will present a recently completed commuter survey and report to its board later this month.

Among the findings — aimed at getting solo drivers out of their cars — is to start a pilot car share program in Marin.

"The survey showed 88 percent of people drive alone to work and the traffic we see is testament to that," said Robert Eyler, CEO of the Marin Economic Forum and a professor at Sonoma State University, who participated in gathering data for the survey. "TAM would like more people to use public transit, but then people lose flexibility if they don't have a car."

The transportation agency will consider a $70,000 pilot program for a car share program. The project would provide midday travel options for people who carpool, vanpool or take transit to work. The plan could include "pods," or specific locations where cars would be available on an hourly rental basis.

While car shares as a private enterprise are common in San Francisco, they have not been developed in Marin due to lack of population density and perceived lack of demand, widespread availability of parking options, and fewer transit options, according to TAM officials.

But they note vendors are now more interested in expanding in less dense areas such as Concord, Walnut Creek, San Jose, Redwood City and Mountain View.

By establishing a pod or two in Marin as a pilot program model, the agency could test the program. Possible sites could include the Marin Civic Center, downtown San Rafael or the Canal neighborhood in San Rafael or Marin City neighborhoods.

Marin sees between 700,000 to 800,000 daily trips by car, 150,000 of those on Highway 101, according to the transportation agency.

"Traffic and congestion are big issues for employees and employers," said Dianne Steinhauser, executive director of the agency. "We are looking at issues in regard to choice and transit. A car share program is one of
Telecommuting also came up in the survey as an area of interest. The agency could coordinate training with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission — the region's transportation planning agency — at businesses for employers and employees to address telecommuting.

The survey also showed that while large employers were good about providing transit options to workers, smaller companies didn't do as well. To that end, the transit agency is looking to spend $20,000 to promote transit options as part of a "tool kit" to smaller business.

Rebecca Woodbury, a member of the San Rafael Chamber Leadership Class, worked on the tool kit — available as a free download at www.gotimemarin.com.

"One of the big things people lack is information and the education about the programs that exist," she said. "The kit will be a clearing house for a lot of good information."

Marin's transportation agency will also look to spend $130,000 to continue programs such as the "early ride home" vanpool incentive. The program allows those people who are in vanpools to get a ride home in case of a family emergency, allowing for flexibility.

Eyler also said it would behoove the county to set up a Wi-Fi network for people to tap into while on
buses, carpools and vanpools.

In April, Golden Gate Transit officials pulled the plug on Wi-Fi on 120 buses, saying the technology simply didn't work well, partly because of Marin's hilly topography.

"People want to be able to start work when they step into a vehicle," he said. "The county should look at a technology partner to help solve that problem."

If your commute isn’t douchey enough, ditch the bike for a $2,700 electric unicycle 


By Jess Zimmerman, June 18, 2013




If you constantly have the nagging sense that you have too much money and too many wheels, your problem may be that you commute on a normal-person bike instead of a self-balancing electric unicycle from Hammacher Schlemmer. Luckily, for only $2,700 you can solve all these problems at once!

The electric unicycle has a limited range (it will run for 2.5 hours on a charge), limited speed (13 miles per hour), and requires three hours to charge. But it does have a few advantages over a regular bike: It is suitable for people who are lazy or out of shape (though it does have a 250-pound weight limit), it gives you all kinds of street cred among circus folks and carnies*, and it’s tiny, so you can actually just stick it in the trunk of your luxury car and drive that to work instead.

Anyway, here’s what it looks like to ride it. You’d think that for $2,700 one could buy a little dignity.

Nicaragua OKs plan for cross-country canal, environment be damned 


By John Upton, June 18, 2013

 Nicaragua map

  “Let’s cut it in two and let shipping through.”

Nicaragua is one step closer to being carved in half by a massive cross-country canal. Leftist President Daniel Ortega rammed the project through his country’s congress last week.

The lawmakers gave the Hong Kong-based HKND Group a 50-year concession to excavate and operate the canal, which is intended to rival Panama’s. If it’s actually built — and that’s still a big if — it promises to give an economic boost to the bitterly poor country. Nicaragua would get a minority share of profits and, say backers, tens of thousands of jobs too.

But critics warn that would come at the expense of the environment and clean water supplies. From Agence France-Presse:
Centro Humboldt environmental group deputy director Victor Campos told AFP the project to link Nicaragua’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts will jeopardize the watershed that supplies water to most of the impoverished country’s population when it transits through Lake Nicaragua. …

HKDN spokesman Ronald MacLean said the company was considering four possible routes for the waterway, and all would necessarily go across Lake Nicaragua.
In the lake lies an island with an active volcano and some 300 islets that serve as breeding grounds for the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), the largest reptile living in Central America and the Caribbean.

One of the possible canal routes would pass through the sprawling Cerro Silva nature reserve between the southern Caribbean coast and the El Rama River port, home to coastal ecosystems, wetlands and tropical forests that environmentalists warn could disappear.

Also in the path of the construction is the Punta Gorda nature reserve in the southern Caribbean, home to more than 120 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians, mollusks and crustaceans.
MacLean said environmental experts would be hired to measure and minimize environmental and social impacts. But groundbreaking is initially scheduled for May 2014, less than a year away, providing precious little time to prepare environmental analyses and recommendations.
Independent experts are skeptical, meanwhile, saying the plan would be so hard to pull off that it may never be realized. From The New York Times:
Experts say that while the approval process led by President Daniel Ortega has been swift, environmental opposition, changes in shipping patterns and construction costs could easily thrust the proposal onto the large list of discarded plans for a Nicaraguan canal.

“It’s not going to happen, that was my first reaction,” said Noel Maurer, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School who helped write a book about the Panama Canal. “A pipe dream might be too strong, but I would just consider it a really bad investment.”

The challenges for Nicaraguan canal planners have always been enormous, and the current project is nothing if not ambitious. It would entail slashing through around 180 miles of thick tropical terrain — roughly triple the length of the Panama Canal — and then pumping a virtual sea through a series of locks deep enough for massive cargo ships.
Activists are already protesting the plans. “Nicaragua isn’t for sale,” the Movement for Nicaragua, a coalition of civil-society groups, wrote in an open letter to the country, the AP reports. “Nicaragua belongs to all Nicaraguans and isn’t the private property of Ortega and his family.”

The Future of Train Travel: Life in Hyper-Speed




 a smaller prototype of the Maglev

Japan, inventor of the world’s first bullet train, recently unveiled plans for an even faster and more
radical train model: a floating train, powered by magnets, that will travel 100 mph faster than current bullet trains (about 300 mph). The maglev train, standing for “magnetic levitation,” will run between Tokyo and Osaka, an estimated distance of 315 miles, cost $64 billion, and be completed by 2045.
has already revolutionized national and international transportation in many parts of the world - for example, China has a maglev that already goes 270mph – and now high-speed is transitioning into hyper-speed. Last year, we reported that Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and co-founder of both PayPal and Tesla Motors, shared with the public his desire to patent a new mode of transportation – the “Hyperloop” that would get passengers from San Francisco to LA in only 30 minutes.

So what might the future hold for train travel? And, more importantly, how will it affect our cities and the people who live in them?

For more on the maglev train and the future of rail, read on.

A concept rendering for Aeromovel, a system Elon Musk cites as similar to his Hyperloop.
The “Hyperloop” would, according to Musk, “never crash, be immune to weather, go twice as fast as an airplane, four times as fast as a bullet train, and – to top it off – run completely on solar power.” While this sounds like a too-good-to-be-true idea straight out of a science fiction novel, our friends at Business Insider believe that there’s no reason the Hyperloop couldn’t become reality with enough political and financial backing – but that’s quite the caveat.

In fact, magnetic levitation technology in trains has been tossed around in the scientific community – and even proposed as an alternative to air travel – for decades.

In 1972, physicist R.M. Salter detailed an underground tube system that could transport people from Los Angeles to New York City in a mind-boggling 21 minutes. The Very High Speed Transit System (VHST) would consist of “electromagnetically levitated and propelled cars in an evacuated tunnel” underground that would function as a sealed vacuum and zip back and forth across the country – at about 14,000 miles per hour.
the VHST system
Not only would the VHST’s travel time between LA and NYC be 5 hours shorter than a plane’s, its tunnel component would also eliminate possibilities of sabotage, right of way costs, surface congestion, grade separation problems, and noise pollution.
So if scientists were already thinking in hyper-speed in 1972, why has it taken so long for the technology to become a reality?

Salter blamed political issues. He wrote, “History has shown that some obvious projects, such as tunneling under the English Channel proposed in the time of Napoleon, can be delayed for centuries because of political pressures” – and, of course, money.
Although President Obama proposed his vision for high-speed rail in the US back in 2009, transport infrastructure here in the States is only lagging further and further behind countries like , who have now officially entered hyper-speed mode. High-speed rail is moving forward in the state of California, but seemingly nowhere else. No matter how compelling the idea, a project of this magnitude demands full political and financial support to succeed.

So although the likelihood that hyper-speed could soon become the new means of travel sounds unlikely, it still offers lots for the imagination. High-speed and hyper-speed rail has the very real capability of bringing cities together like never before. What’s more, it would necessitate a whole new kind of infrastructure to support it. What would such a hyper-speed station look like? How would it affect other types of transportation, or change the face of our cities? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
how to (not) sound elitist when discussing transit


By Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew, June 17, 2013

Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew, both at the University of Utah, have a new large-format paperback offering a concise overview of the basics on Pedestrian and Transit-Oriented design.  If you want a good glossary of key urbanist concepts such as imageability and coherence, or you want a good and well-cited argument for local street connectivity, this is your book.

Very usefully, the book is organized as a series of checklists:  Here are the features that you must have to be considered transit-oriented design, here are others that are desirable.  It's designed to be handy to the time-crunched developer or policy person.  In fact, it meets one of the most important standards for an influential book in our distracted age:  You can get most of the message by just looking at the pictures and reading the section headings.
If only I'd done that, I'd have found nothing to criticize.

The writing is good, too, clear and with careful attention to explaining and demystefying concepts.  With one exception, I'd recommend this as a good reference guide to the key concepts of pedestrian-oriented design.
As for its use as a guide to transit-oriented design, however, it has a fatal flaw:  The authors make recommendations that make sense only from a design and development point of view, and that will sound elitist and tone-deaf if you present them to your transit agency.  As always, I emphasize sound; I've talked with enough urbanist writers to know how good their intentions are; they are mostly genuinely surprised when their comments about transit backfire.  But it's not a hard mistake to avoid.  I am going to take apart a critical passage in the book not because it's typical -- it's actually a rare flaw in a good book -- but because it illustrates a lingering problem with urbanist discussions of transit in general, one that I hope we are close to moving beyond.

Ewing and Bartholomew lead off their transit discussion with this tired old chestnut:
In the question for efficiency, transit has become dull and utilitarian, part of the problem reather than the solution to today's lifeless streetscapes (Coppe 1991).  [p 82]
If this generalization is really about "today," then how is it bolstered by a 22-year old citation?  I personally have been hearing this line from urbanist leaders for just about that long.  Obviously it's true to a degree, more in some cities than others,  but there has been transformative progress in the last two decades.  Fleet, facilities, and technology have been upgraded across the developed world, often with the input of great designers.  Do transit agencies get no credit for the evolution in the comfort, openness and access that have happened over the last generation?
The phrase "efficient and utilitarian" signals a perspective that sees all forms efficiency as evil.  But when working under any fixed budget as transit agencies do, efficiency is the same thing as abundance.  (When something called efficiency is genuinely destructive or unsustainable, it should be called false efficiency.)

As for the word utilitarian, it has a technical meaning in philosophy but here it's just a pejorative word meaning useful.  Anything that scales to a vast network that's potentially useful to millions of people can be called utilitarian.  Most great transit agencies would wear this term as a badge of honor.

But the authors dig themselves deeper.  After showing us pictures of charming, highly designed bus shelters in two wealthy communities that can afford them, they write:
In some cases, transit operators might do better by putting fewer buses on the street at times of low demand, and diverting the money they save into bus stop amenities and fleet facelifts.
This, urbanist friends, crosses a bright red line called upward redistribution of wealth.

This book appears at a time when many US transit agencies have been slashing transit service for the last five years, driving away legions of riders.  Portland, for example, has had its inner city grid network gutted -- mostly cut to 20 minute frequencies at which the connections on which it relies are almost impossible -- even though frequent transit service is a foundational element in the City of Portland's neighborhood development policies.

Any "low-ridership" services that have survived all that carnage are serving popular and important non-ridership goals.  They are not going to be cut to build nicer bus shelters.  Doing so could also be illegal in the US if you're using Federal funds: US Title VI legislation (part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) is designed to prevent exactly this kind of upward redistribution of the benefits resulting from public investment.  All US transit agencies that receive Federal funds must do extensive analysis to prove they are treating low-income and minority riders fairly in both service and infrastructure.
So if you follow this book's advice, and tell your transit agency they should cut service and reject lower-income people so as to build nicer bus shelters, it doesn't matter how noble your intentions are.  You will sound both elitist and clueless.  You will sound especially hostile to the burgeoning environmental justice agenda that is already embodied in civil rights legislation, and that has its own strong nexus with the ultimate outcomes that we call sustainability.  If you prevail in guiding the policy of your transit agency, that agency could be exposed to civil rights lawsuits as a result.  Do you really want this many enemies?

It doesn't help that in suggesting service cuts at "times [rather than places] of low demand," the authors are just repeating a common misconception.  Ridership at different times of day is interdependent, if only for the obvious reason that most transit trips are round trips.  If you cut service and thus reject a customer at one time of day, you'll likely lose their business in the other direction as well.  The most obvious "time of low demand," the late evening, is also a "guaranteed ride home," which means it affects the overall attractiveness of the product.

More important, a consistent pattern of all-day service (including "times of low demand") is a powerful tool for fostering lower vehicle ownership.  That's is why many transit agencies are now committing to a policy "Frequent Network" that guarantees service over a certain span regardless of trip-by-trip ridership.  (These policies, important in guiding true Transit-oriented Development at regionwide scale, deserved a mention.  Policies in the Portland and Vancouver BC regions could both have been cited.  Indeed, the book is silent on the urgent question of how to recognize a suitable site for TOD.)

I love distinctive transit shelters as much as anyone, but not if they are defined as an alternative to the sheer quantities of service that cities need and that ridership would reward.  (Canadian midsized cities, for example, generally have about twice the ridership per capita of similar US cities, not becuase their shelters are cuter but becuase they run about twice as much service per capita.)
Distinctive, adorable shelters can still come about in one of three entirely reasonable ways.  Either:
  1. they have been paid for by developers, or by neighboring landowners who will profit most directly from any uplift in land values, or
  2. they have been paid for by city governments, or
  3. they are transit agency investments that are affordable and suitable for mass production, like the San Francisco shelters with the characteristic wave roofs.  
Developer-funding (also endorsed in the book) is often the purest nexus of all, but city funding is also a healthy trend.  Cities are much better placed than regional transit agencies to make investments that express civic identity and character.  Most US cities can also do improvement districts that focus the cost on the landowners who will most benefit.  Still, it's usually wealthier communities that can afford to do this, so it's deeply misleading to present these specialized shelters as realistic examples for cities in general, let alone to suggest that cash-strapped agencies should reject existing riders in order to pay for them.

It's hard to even criticize Ewing and Bartholomew for these howlers.  As long as I've been in the business, I've heard leading urbanists lecturing transit planners about how they should abandon their obsession with abundant service and focus on aesthetics instead.  As someone with serious credentials in the arts, my response is always that I understand the aesthetic values that the urbanist is describing, but that their recommendation is pointless until they own the consequences of the cuts they are implicitly proposing to fund these things.

To be fair, transit agencies have been slow to engage urbanists in their own language, which requires staff with appropriate expertise.  This, however, has improved dramatically over the last decade.

Working urban designers and architects are responding constructively to transit agency input, and respectful conversations between the fields are happening more than ever.  Most urban design and architecture professonals that I deal with are sensitive to real-world transit issues and open to learning about transit agency perspectives, so we can hope for a continued spread of insight on these issues.
Indeed, Ewing's and Bartholomew's book shows how far the urbanist discourse has come in respecting transit and the diversity of its riders.  They speak mostly of "transit," avoiding rail vs. bus arguments, and their photos show buses as accepted parts of the urban landscape deserving of attention.   This is real progress, still controversial in some quarters.  It was partly in the context of this larger sensitivity that the passages quoted above were so shocking.

In the long run, urbanist thinkers who discuss transit will learn to respect transit planning and policy as a genuine experise -- something that's worth learning about before you comment on it.  Again, my own experience suggests that the practice is ahead of the literature in this regard.  This book -- very useful on all subjects except transit policy -- shows how far urbanists' respect for transit agencies has come since the early days of the New Urbanism, and how much -- or perhaps how little -- remains to be done.

Conservative Think Tank: Invest in Transit to Boost Metro Economies


By Angie Schmitt, June 17, 2013

Here’s a refreshing take on metropolitan economic health from the right side of the aisle: The conservative Free Congress Foundation says it’s time America got serious about investing in transit in its metro areas.
Young, educated people are demanding better transit options and returning to cities, notes a new report by the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank.

This think tank, founded by conservative Paul Weyrich (also co-founder of the Heritage Foundation), released a report [PDF] last week extolling the economic benefits of transit investment and healthy cities. The Free Congress Foundation is also holding congressional hearings on its findings on the Hill, bringing some much-needed conservative support for walkable, connected cities to Washington politics.

The report argues that returns on investment in highways are declining. Author Michael Bronzini says healthy, walkable cities are important to attracting talent in a knowledge-based, 21st century economy.

“The history of metropolitan area development in the U.S. since World War II to the present is well known, and has often been described as the ‘flight to the suburbs,’” says Bronzini. “More recently, many metropolitan areas have been seeing somewhat of a return to the city.”

“These new urban residents want walkable communities, social and cultural amenities and good public transportation services that will enable them to access all the opportunities that vibrant central cities have to offer,” Bronzini adds.

While some prominent conservative electeds have starved transit and approached the movement toward cities as a political threat, others, like Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, have shown leadership and recognized the economic value of creating more walkable places. The Free Congress Foundation’s report is more evidence that Republican transit opponents don’t speak for all conservatives when it comes to transportation policy.

Foldable Bike Helmets: Will They Ever Get Off the Ground?


By John Metcalfe, June 18, 2013



 Foldable Bike Helmets: Will They Ever Get Off the Ground?

Normally, seeing a bike helmet squished down like a crumpled melon would invoke feelings of dread: It's a clear signal that somebody had a bad accident.

But with the Closca "Turtle" helmet, it just indicates an unusual design job. The helmet's three sections compact to less than one half of its full size, allowing it to slip into messenger bags already bulging with iPads, fancy-ass headphones and other accoutrements of the urban-style centurion.

The "Turtle" is being marketed on Kickstarter right now by Closca, an up-and-coming maker of helmets based in Valencia, Spain. (It's one prototype in a small field of folding helmets, like the Transformers-looking object from Overade and BioLogic's fencing mask.) The Closca guys conceived of the accordioning brain-guard a few years back during an argument about helmet usage:
Why do some people still not wear them, they wondered, when they so clearly help save lives? They decided the answer was twofold: It can be a chore to carry them around when not cycling, and they detract from the cool, hair-blowing-in-the-wind look that free-scalpers enjoy.

So they built this hardhat to address both issues. A rider can collapse the helmet in a second or less into an easy-to-store, book-like object. And as for the fashion issue, the Closca team has conjured up "interchangeable textile covers" that they say "have been designed by experts following the latest trendy patterns":

The trendiness becomes obvious, maybe, once you see actual people wearing them:

Closca promises that its telescoping noggin-wrapper, if funded, will swiftly become "part of the urban cyclists’ way of dressing and lifestyle." Seeing as how they were only $5,227 toward a $45,000 goal on Monday evening, that is a big "if." But god's speed, shrinking-helmet dudes – you've put in too much effort to turn back at this point, having already put the Turtle through rigorous impact trials at a state-of-the-art testing lab.

US kids born in polluted areas more likely to have autism.


By Brian Bienkowski, June 18, 2013


Women who live in areas with polluted air are up to twice as likely to have an autistic child than those living in communities with cleaner air, according to a new study published today.
Harvard University
Harvard's Andrea Roberts was lead author of the new study.
Building on two smaller, regional studies, the Harvard University research is the first to link air pollution nationwide with autism. It also is the first to suggest that baby boys may be more at risk for autism disorders when their mothers breathe polluted air during pregnancy.

Babies born in areas of the United States with high airborne levels of mercury, diesel exhaust, lead, manganese, nickel and methylene chloride were more likely to have autism than those in areas with lower pollution. The strongest links were for diesel exhaust and mercury.

“The striking similarity with our results and the previous studies adds a tremendous amount to the weight of evidence that pollutants in the air might be causing autism in children,” said Andrea Roberts, a research associate at the Harvard University School of Public Health and lead author of the new study published online in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Scientists have been trying to figure out whether a variety of environmental exposures are linked to autism, a neurological disorder diagnosed in one out of every 50 U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17.

Because the new air pollution study has some weaknesses, however, its findings, while interesting, are not conclusive, several scientists said. For example, the researchers estimated the mothers’ exposure to air pollutants based on computer models.

“It’s the same weakness as other studies [on environmental pollutants and autism]. They’re using an EPA model, which estimates what’s coming out of factories and traffic and spits out a pollution estimate,” said Amy Kalkbrenner, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who was not involved in this study.

Also pollution varies by season and “pregnant women don’t just sit inside a census tract,” said Kalkbrenner, who conducted a similar, smaller study in 2010.

In addition, the results may be skewed because children in urban areas have more access to doctors and clinics where they are more likely to be diagnosed, said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, who studies autism.

The new study used information from 325 mothers from around the country who gave birth after 1987 to a child later diagnosed with autism. The researchers divided these children into five groups based on their mothers’ estimated air pollution exposure during pregnancy and compared their autism rates to 22,000 non-autistic children born from 1987 to 2002. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's pollution estimates were broken down by census tract. The income and education level of the families were factored in, since they also can be linked to air pollution.

Researchers used U.S. EPA models that estimate air pollution based on traffic and industrial emissions.

For mercury and diesel, the mothers in the highest exposure group were twice as likely to have an autistic child. Lead, manganese, nickel, methylene chloride and overall metal exposure also were associated with higher incidences of autism. Twenty-six of 180 pollutants had a significant association between exposure and autism rates.

“Since so many [pollutants] were linked to higher autism rates, we can’t tell from the study which ones might be the causes,” Roberts said.
 "Since so many [pollutants] were linked to higher autism rates, we can't tell from the study which ones might be the causes."-Andrea Roberts, Harvard University

Autism disorders are development disabilities – with a wide range in severity -- that are marked by social impairment, difficulty with communication and repetitive behaviors. Rates have been increasing, but many experts think this cannot be entirely explained by increased diagnoses by doctors.

Boys are about four times more likely than girls to be identified as having the disorder, according to the CDC. In Roberts’ study, the researchers saw associations between exposures and higher autism rates when looking at the group as a whole and at just boys. However, when they looked only at girls, there were no statistically significant links between pollution and autism.

It’s not clear why, Roberts said. Boys are more likely to have autism, so it may be easier to “push them over the threshold into autism” through mothers’ pollutant exposure, Roberts said. But both she and Kalkbrenner said the sample size of girls – 14 percent of the children with autism – is too small for the gender differences to be significant.

Autism disorders affect about 1 in 50 U.S. kids.
Previously, several industrial pollutants – methylene chloride, quinolone and styrene – were linked to higher autism rates in children born in North Carolina and West Virginia, according to a 2010 study. Pregnant mothers’ exposure to metals and chlorinated solvents was linked to increased risk of having an autistic child, according to a 2006 study of San Francisco area children.

Also, children born to mothers who lived near freeways in California were more likely to be autistic, according to a 2011 study by University of Southern California researchers.

“Diesel and these other air pollutants are something that a broad segment of the population is exposed to. It’s important to look at these things,” said Michael Maloney, executive director of the nonprofit Organization for Autism Research.

Maloney said parents “naturally want to know what causes autism.”

“Some parents have an absolute certainty that something specific caused the condition, such as vaccinations,” Maloney said, referring to ongoing controversy over whether child vaccines spur autism. “But most just want to know how to help their child.”

Certain genes are linked to the disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health. Studies suggest that defective genes, which can disrupt fetal brain development, could result in autism disorders. And researchers are increasingly looking at environmental pollutants, which could spur defective genes.

“There are a couple of things we do know – these things [pollutants] are neurotoxins and they can pass from mother to the fetus while it’s still developing,” Roberts said. “And some of these chemicals can cause genetic mutations – the type associated with autism.”

Kalkbrenner said it’s also possible that the pollutants are not allowing the nervous system to develop naturally or hampering the ability of immune cells to help neurons move efficiently.

Hertz-Picciotto, who was senior author on a 2011 study that found prenatal vitamins were associated with decreased autism risk, said the disorder is likely caused by a number of factors.

“Maybe air pollution is a problem, mother’s nutrition probably plays a role,” she said. “And then some children are more than likely just more susceptible.”
 "Maybe air pollution is a problem, mother's nutrition probably plays a role. And then some children are more than likely just more susceptible."- Irva Hertz-Picciotto, University of California, Davis
Roberts said a good next research step would be to take blood samples from pregnant women or from babies to measure some pollutants.

But not all pollutants end up in the blood so they are difficult to measure. And autism’s nature makes teasing out a definitive cause difficult.

“If you follow hundreds of children from birth, only a couple will have autism. You can enroll 100,000 children in a study, but it’s prohibitively expensive,” Kalkbrenner said. “Or you can follow them after they’re diagnosed – but it’s the exposures very early in life that we’re concerned about. So by the time they’re diagnosed, it’s too late.”

Why You Ride: Bicycle Edition – mayor of South Pasadena, biking to work since 1977


By Sarah Tseng, June 17, 2013


During Bike Week LA, we collected nominations for the Golden Pedal Awards, Metro’s annual competition for great stories about bicycling. We’re featuring these stories in a weekly Why You Ride series – because for many Angelenos, every week is Bike Week!

Dr. Richard Schneider is an overachiever in many ways. He’s a pathologist at two hospitals — one in Hollywood, the other in Lynwood. He’s the mayor of South Pasadena. And he’s biked to work nearly every day since 1977.

Name: Dr. Richard Schneider
Start: South Pasadena
End: Hollywood and Lynwood
Distance: 10 miles (Hollywood), 17 miles (Lynwood)
Time: 35-55 minutes (Hollywood), 70-85 minutes (Lynwood)
Dr. Richard Schneider and his bicycle (plus high-visibility jacket, helmet, and lights)
Dr. Richard Schneider, mayor of South Pasadena, and his bicycle (plus high-visibility jacket, helmet, and lights)

South Pasadena City Clerk Sally Kilby nominated Dr. Schneider for a Golden Pedal Award, stating that “most others half his age couldn’t or wouldn’t push through the traffic, danger, weather, and challenges he must face.”

Dr. Schneider put it less dramatically: “I’ll tell you how I started. We used to have to work a half day during the week and a half day during the weekend, so I started riding on the half days, one or two days a week. We only had one car at the time, so I started riding my bike more often, two or three days a week. Now I ride almost every day.”

While there are bike lanes on his way to Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, his route to St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood has no bicycle markings at all. He simply pedals down a combination of quiet residential streets and major arterials, carefully detouring to avoid the intersection where the 710 spills onto Atlantic Boulevard (“You get ‘scissored,’” Dr. Schneider said, describing the car traffic entering and exiting the freeway).

Once he gets to the hospital, he parks his bike inside his office, cleans up with baby wipes and changes into scrubs. “Everyone knows [the bicyclists], especially at the hospital, because we save them a parking space, and parking spaces are expensive,” he joked. “In a garage, it costs up to $30,000 [to build] a space.”

After commuting by bicycle for 36 years, Dr. Schneider hasn’t been in a major accident yet, but he does have close calls “almost every day.” To stay safe, he avoids bicycling in the late evening or when it rains – “then I drive my car and sit in traffic like everyone else.”

Dr. Schneider notes that improving bicycle safety will require significant cultural and behavioral changes among U.S. drivers. For instance, he said, according to a neighbor from Denmark – a country famous for its high rates of bicycling – “when they teach young people to drive automobiles [in Denmark], one of the first things they teach is to look in their mirror before they open the door. That’s one of the big problems they have here in LA. That’s why you have to ride about five feet away from a row of parked cars here – because you don’t want to be in the door zone.”

What keeps him bicycling after all these years? “A whole constellation of reasons… I like to ride. You can keep your sanity by riding. [And there are] all these social bonuses – it saves the environment, cleans the air, lessens traffic, it’s good for exercise, good for your reputation around the hospital. When I have to drive, people say, ‘Hey, where’s your bike?’ It’s just friendly needling.”

Thanks Dr. Schneider for being such a visible advocate for safe bicycling! With help from our
generous Bike Week sponsors, we’ve sent you a Nathan safety vest, RydeSafe reflective decals, Clif Bars, and a free year of bicycle roadside assistance from Better World Club.

Equity as a Factor in Surface Transportation Politics


By Alan Altshuler, Spring 2013


Click on image below to download pdf
dynamic ridesharing


By far the largest federal infrastructure grant program in the United States is for highways and urban mass transportation, totaling $60 billion in 2011 alone. Two of the three most recent multi-year authorizations for surface transportation programs, enacted in 1998 and 2005, featured equity in their formal titles. Many states argued that, to be equitable, federal highway aid should mirror revenue flows from each state into the federal Highway Trust Fund. In contrast, few argued for equity on behalf of the poor and disabled.

We are now in the midst of new debates about funding for surface transportation, and how to manage road congestion in an era when major capacity expansion is rarely feasible. These debates are also routinely framed around conceptions of equity. In this article, I seek to explain the distinctive nature of equity debates in US surface transportation, with particular attention to congestion pricing and High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

Concepts of Equity

Equity encompasses the ideas of fairness and equality in some form—if not of incomes, then in relation to the law or access to public services. But the concept of equity is also exceedingly general, and every political group tends to claim its mantle, even when their aims are diametrically opposed.
table 1I focus here on four operational definitions of equity, grouped into two sets that have been the most salient in recent surface transport deliberations (Table 1). Set 1, Redistributive Equity, involves variants on the theme that government action should seek to offset private sector inequalities. Set 2, Return-to-Source Equity, involves variants on the theme that benefits should flow to those who have paid for them.

Most successful equity claims in transportation policy are of the return-to-source variety. Consider the multi-year authorization statute enacted in 2005, known as SAFETEA-LU, the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. The Act's section on equity focused exclusively on guaranteeing that each state receive at least a 90 percent return (rising to 92 percent in 2008) of its contribution to the Highway Trust Fund.

Americans harbor very different conceptions of equity when thinking about the private and public sectors. In the private sector, they sharply distinguish equity from equality, viewing inequality as a vital incentive on which prosperity depends. In the public sector, by contrast, they are highly suspicious of privilege and believe that services should be provided to the residents of any jurisdiction either equally (garbage collection, water supply) or on the basis of need (compensatory education, safety nets for the poor). For the most part, these attitudes about equity simply coexist. When they come into conflict, it is usually in the context of disputes about the appropriate scope of government.

In domains framed as economic (banking regulation, development tax incentives), overarching policies typically aim to help businesses flourish. In domains viewed as quintessentially public (government personnel policies, most social policies), egalitarian norms tend to predominate.

These are tendencies, to be sure, not absolute dichotomies. What is pertinent in the framework of this article, however, is that most transportation policies have been framed squarely as economic, with little or no focus on redistribution. There are some obvious reasons why. Most of the vehicles are privately owned and operated. The organizations that make, sell, fuel, and maintain them, and the organizations that use them for shipping, are almost all private. This pattern carries over into politics. Dominant interest groups—companies and their trade associations—have long framed the government's role as mainly to facilitate private travel and investor-driven economic development.

Public officials often play leading roles in the development of transportation policy and project proposals. These officials typically do so in close concert with transportation business interests, judging that little can be achieved without their support and nothing can be achieved in the face of their opposition. Public officials routinely emphasize as well that their proposals are equitable, but overwhelmingly with a focus on geographic and/or user group rather than redistributive equity.
table 2This is not the entire story. Unlike the rest of the transportation system, mass transit is today almost entirely public, including vehicle ownership and operation. It is roughly four-fifths taxpayer financed, with the tax revenue drawn from sources unrelated to transit use. And one of its core functions is to serve those without easy access to cars. Issues of redistributive equity are, therefore, more salient in mass transit than other sectors of transportation policy.

Even in the transit sector, though, services that sharply target the poor and disabled have found traction mainly in campaigns to broaden the coalition for conventional highway and transit expenditures. And redistributive equity is marginal even within mass transit. As John Pucher and others have documented, for example, though low-income transit users rely mainly on buses, transit subsidies have consistently been skewed heavily toward rail systems. This is not to say, however, that low-income households rely primarily on transit. John Pucher and John L. Renne have documented that as of 2001 members of urban households with incomes below $20,000 made 76 percent of their trips by auto and just 4.6 percent by transit.

Reform is in the Air: What is Equity's Place?

carsMuch debate in recent years focuses on rectifying perceived shortfalls in surface transport finance. Since Congress last raised the federal gas tax in 1993, inflation has cut its buying power by one-third, and Highway Trust Fund expenditures have consistently exceeded income since 2001. A variety of national study groups have sought to address this problem in recent years. On the subject of equity, their analyses have scarcely varied.
By way of illustration, consider the National Transportation Policy Project, which took place under the auspices of the Bi-Partisan Policy Center. Its 25 members, of whom I was one, included a mix of former public officials, business people, nonprofit representatives, and academics. The final report was unanimous.

At an early meeting, the group identified six national transportation goals: economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, environmental sustainability, energy security, and safety. Several members immediately questioned the absence of equity from this list. They encountered a buzz-saw of arguments against adding it, most notably:
  • Consensus on a definition would be impossible to achieve.
  • The equity claims with greatest force in transportation politics are put forward by states and user groups seeking benefits in proportion to their fiscal contributions.
  • Including redistributive equity as a program goal would severely divide the committee itself, and such a divide would undermine its mission.
Within a few minutes it was clear that the great majority of members found these arguments compelling, so the committee moved on.

The committee did return to equity, however, when laying out its specific recommendations. Here it urged creating a small Essential Access Program providing aid to the states "to ensure that transportation remains accessible for the underserved and disadvantaged." It recommended that 2 percent of federal funding be allocated for this program.

The Principle of "Do No Harm"

Though surface transportation policies rarely identify redistribution as a policy goal, the interests of disadvantaged people often loom large as constraints on policies and projects. American government is, for good reason, commonly described as a veto-group system. To succeed, the champions of new policies or spending commitments must typically prevail at many decision points, often at multiple levels of government, and at times with requirements for super-majorities (as in the US Senate). Opponents, by contrast, need to prevail only once. This structure empowers any group seeking to block new policy and project initiatives—most commonly groups representing the rich and powerful, but also at times those representing the disadvantaged. Such veto power is even more important for the disadvantaged because—weak in resources and organizational capacity—they rarely have the capacity to pursue more proactive agendas.
overpassDuring the 1950s and 1960s, new federal aid programs of unprecedented scale—most notably, for freeway construction and Urban Renewal—did for the first time displace large numbers of people. These programs seemed unstoppable at first, but within 10 to 15 years of hitting the ground they provoked intense opposition, including full-blown riots. This opposition in turn led to laws mandating citizen participation, strict environmental standards and review procedures, and strong protections for public open space and historic sites.

An ideological shift accompanied these developments. Community benefits could no longer be justified by the utilitarian standard of "the greatest good for the greatest number." It became less acceptable to displace people who happened to be in the way, despoil the environment, or destroy precious amenities such as key historic sites. Though originally applied to projects involving physical displacement, the same principle is now frequently invoked against fiscal proposals that would disrupt prevailing lifestyles for significant numbers of people, such as fuel tax increases or new highway tolls.

In our book, Megaprojects, David Luberoff and I labeled this new ethic "Do No Harm." In most cases, it simply leads policy makers to reject or redesign proposals that leave some groups notably worse off. But it also has a significant redistributive component because development initiatives have been far more likely to harm the poor than the rich. Poor neighborhoods are frequently viewed as blights rather than assets. They are weakly represented in the corridors of power. And they are less equipped to cope when their lives are disrupted.

Congestion Pricing: Why So Difficult?

When academics address surface transportation policy reform today, they invariably recommend road pricing to internalize the costs of negative externalities that motorists impose on others, such as congestion and pollution. The simplest proposal, at least conceptually, is congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing proposals have made some headway abroad, but little so far in the US. Principal obstacles include: entrenched perspectives rooted in history (path dependency), equity arguments from groups opposed to rationing by price in the public sector, general anti-tax sentiment, and the many opportunities for minority veto discussed earlier. The first two are tightly linked in that the equity arguments hinge on a path-dependent understanding of roads as quintessentially public.
pullquoteIf the nation were just now starting to build expressways, the system would almost surely be developed on the model of a public utility, where direct customer payments provide most of the revenue. Railroads, trucking, aviation, and even mass transit systems developed in this way in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Expressways evolved from local streets, however, and tolling, even on limited-access roads, was highly intrusive, space-consuming, expensive, and a source of significant traffic delays until the late 20th century. When the federal government commenced highway aid in 1916, it principally aimed to "get the farmers out of the mud" Rural roads were unlikely candidates for toll financing. As Gary T. Schwartz wrote 60 years later, the very first paragraph of the 1916 Act "required that all federally funded roads be 'free from tolls of all kinds,' [and this provision was] continued forward in all subsequent highway legislation."

Americans have been conditioned to think of roads as thoroughly public, more akin to public parks and schools than to telecommunications, aviation, or power networks, and thus properly organized around egalitarian rather than market norms. Road pricing proposals invite the charge that they favor the affluent in use of a public resource. This critique has not precluded the use of toll financing to construct freeways, bridges, and tunnels where tax resources have been unavailable, but the rationale for the tolls has invariably been to pay off the bonds. The rationale for tolling has never been to manage demand.

Political leaders have recently sought to implement congestion pricing in a few exceptional cases. These initiatives have taken two forms: Central Area Pricing, involving charges for driving in the central business districts of large cities, and High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in congested freeway corridors. Central Area Pricing, blocked primarily by redistributive equity objections, has so far made no headway in the US. In contrast, many American cities currently operate HOT lanes, with tolls that vary in real time to manage congestion, and many more are on the drawing boards. How have HOT lane advocates overcome the usual obstacles to congestion pricing?

HOT Lanes

HOT lanes evolved from two road management innovations of the 1960s and 1970s: bus-only and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. When cities realized that new freeway construction could not keep pace with rising traffic, they first dedicated lanes within existing roads for buses only. But only a few corridors in the United States carried enough buses to utilize most of the capacity of a freeway lane. This underuse led to the idea of admitting carpools with three or more occupants, and the bus lanes became HOV lanes. In most cases, however, these HOV lanes also proved to have conspicuous unused capacity, which irritated motorists in the adjacent, congested lanes. Beginning in the 1980s, most HOV lanes opened to two-person carpools as well. Even this rarely solved the problem of apparent wasted capacity. In response, several HOV lanes were actually converted back to general-purpose use.

The HOT lane idea provided a solution: allocate the spare capacity by price. HOT lanes initially provided hope that they could attract private investors to expand the pot of money available for highway improvements. And the first HOT lane facility did so. The developer received a 35-year franchise to build four new lanes within the right-of-way of SR-91 in Orange County, California, one of the nation's most congested freeways. Within three years of the project's opening in 1995, however, a fierce dispute broke out between the developer and public authorities over a state-county plan to improve SR-91's general-purpose lanes. The developer insisted that a non-compete clause in its contract precluded any such public investment, since the HOT lane project's viability as a private investment required severe congestion on the parallel free lanes. This struck many as an equity issue. Following several years of litigation, the Orange County Transportation Authority bought out the developer's interest for $208 million. All subsequent projects were purely public until the Capital Beltway (I-495) in Northern Virginia, completed in November 2012. This 14-mile project added two HOT lanes in each direction and was financed with a mix of public and private funding. The main incentive for private investors is an 85-year concession period.
table 3Controversies about income-based equity delayed some early HOT lane proposals, but the HOT lane advocates have successfully demonstrated that users include representatives of all income groups (though not in equal proportions) and that their shift into HOT lanes slightly alleviates congestion on the unpriced lanes as well.

Opinion poll data, although scarce, indicate little difference by income class in attitudes toward HOT lanes. A 2001 survey of both HOT lane users and non-users in San Diego, for example, found broad support, with the highest support among the lowest income group. A 2006 poll in Minneapolis also found broad support across all income levels, including 64 percent of low-income respondents.

Table 3 shows the HOT lanes in operation as of 2012, their opening dates, and their rules about the number of occupants required for private cars to avoid toll charges. The great majority are free to carpools with two or more occupants as well as transit buses, vanpools, emergency vehicles, motorcycles, vehicles with handicapped and often veteran's license plates, and in some cases clean fuel vehicles. The others are free to carpools with three or more occupants (with one minor exception, where tolls are levied on 3+ carpools for two peak hours each morning in one direction only).

In addition to the ten HOT lanes then in operation, a 2009 Federal Highway Administration study found 60 projects at various stages of planning or design, and numerous others have since been announced. Some of the largest initiatives are in Houston, which will have converted or built 138 HOT-lane miles by 2013, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has announced plans to develop 1,300 miles of HOT lanes by 2035. The latest authorization statute for surface transportation programs, signed into law in July 2012, provides blanket authority for tolling both on new federally-aided HOT lanes and HOV conversions to HOT lanes. Known as MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century), it specifies that vehicles with two or more occupants should normally travel free on HOT lanes, but with a major caveat. If a facility falls out of compliance with the minimum average operating speed performance standard (normally defined as 45 miles per hour), the state may require higher vehicle occupancy for free travel.

In conclusion, HOT lanes appear to be gaining favor for four reasons. They have reinvigorated a traffic-engineering concept—HOV lanes—that had become increasingly vulnerable to the charge of wasting valuable road capacity. They are very low cost relative to other means of expanding expressway capacity. They enable a subset of motorists, who freely choose to pay for it, to save significant amounts of time. And perhaps most important, they are unique among major congestion-relief options in that they satisfy the "Do No Harm" criterion of equity: they leave no one worse off.