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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Coming Artistic Revolution

And its courageous, $40B/yr Los Angeles investor


“That’s a wrap!” I was assistant directing a national TV show and the day’s stress was almost over. An hour later, I said good night to the producer, the only other one left on set, as he headed to his car. Beginning my walk home, I looked at the empty street stretching off in front of me and breathed for the first time since the morning: respite. Then a car, coming from behind me, screeched to a halt in my path.

“Get in, I’ll give you a ride to your car, no one should have to walk!”
“I mean, OK, I’m going to the Red Line.”
“That’s, what, a 10 minute walk? Come on, get in.”
“I was looking forwa…”
“Go ahead and walk!” He started to pull away.
“Alright, alright!”
Do what the producer says. I got in his car and we drove off. He then asked, as if I was crazy, “How can you work in film in LA without a car?”

That’s a complicated question, so I replied in the simplest way I could, “I live Downtown.” But to fully explain an answer, it takes longer than a four-minute drive; we have to go back 100 years…

World War One was over. Banks in New York City with newly minted deep pockets began financing Germany’s post war reparations to the rest of Europe. Coupled with a low reserve ratio and an already prosperous post-war economy, the whole of western society became rich overnight. Average people had the means to spend money on their passions without a care for responsibility. What followed was a society courageously accommodating the future, birthing the most artistically advanced decade of all time—The Roaring Twenties.

The Jazz Age freed music—setting the stage for every modern genre. The Flappers reinvented fashion—creating a backdrop for every contemporary style. The foundations of the old artistic world were uprooted and a new world created. A world that still gives homage nearly 100 years later.

For instance, in Woody Allen’s 2011 movie “Midnight In Paris” his modern main character, a writer played by Owen Wilson, is able to go back to the 1920s and meet some of his idols — Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, etc. Ecstatic at his luck, he tells a 1920s girl, “We are in the greatest artistic moment of all time!” But she doesn’t believe him, instead claiming Belle Époque in Paris some 30 years prior was.
The ultimate point of the film is to embrace the now, but even the film fails at its own premises; Owen Wilson’s character needs advice on his modern pitfalls and the only ones who can help are the masters of old.

In a critical review of the film in The New York Times, Joseph Berger states, “Many a writer or artist has longed to travel back in time to the sizzling Paris of the 1920s, to sip absinthe with Hemingway at Les Deux Magots or dine on choucroute garnie with Picasso at La Rotonde.” Any artist who knows their craft knows the ‘20s as The Great Modern Artistic Decade.
Excerpt from The Matrix screenplay
Never again. The collective psyche of the world was irreparably damaged one day in October 1929 known as Black Tuesday. Our grandparents, who lived through the ‘20s and felt the hurt of The Great Depression, built a world that revised banking practices, forgave war reparations, and shunned irresponsible living, preventing the financial boom of the 1920s from ever happening again.

And rightly so. To inject such a massive amount of unrestrained capital into peoples’ passions could only invite another catastrophic collapse. And so, we live in a world that is a ripple of the ‘20s. Axis of Awesome, an Australian comedy band, even wrote a song showing how pop music has hilariously done nothing for decades. Our arts, though they have advanced, have never been fundamentally changed from their 1920s foundation.

After watching “Midnight in Paris,” I was suddenly saddened. I could not help but think, I will never see the world put away the ‘20s as the ‘20s put away Belle Époque. But hope persisted, maybe there was something else beyond resources that contributed to the 1920s artistic explosion.
A powder keg. Often times art is a response to something and the ‘20s were no exception—a technological revolution took place.

The first TV, along with the first Talkie, was invented—solidifying film set job titles like “Assistant Director.” The automobile, which before WWI could only be afforded by the rich, was made widely available because of mass production. Fitzgerald, in his essay “My Lost City,” speaks of buying magnificent cars while living in the walkable Manhattan of the ‘20s as if they were nothing. Technology dramatically transformed the artistic landscape.

Interestingly enough, today, we have also undergone a technological revolution: Steve Jobs ushered in the age of mobile computing. When asked by someone from 1920 what the future is like, the modern man’s best reply is: We have a device that fits in our pocket, and, having all the information in the world on it, we use it to look at funny pictures of cats.

Unlike phones from the last 100 years, today, accessible from 40,000 ft. in the air, a million things can be done on the latest smart phones. This accessibility has become so widespread that physical commuting has even become irrelevant. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So why have we not experienced an artistic response to this revolution? Perhaps it’s more than just technology or resources...

What else? Like Woody, I examined the artists of The Crazy Years. There were a number of reasons Hemingway and others moved to Paris in 1921, not the least of which was because “the most interesting people in the world” lived there. The 1920's saw the first group of artists courageously discovering the new world. Coined by Gertrude Stein, this “Lost Generation” was a massive collection of masters who greatly influenced each other—the 1920's were also fueled by a critical mass of experts.

Does a critical mass of expert artists exist today? First, according to Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, “Outliers,” expert status is gained only after 10,000 hours of practicing a craft. The Beatles, for instance, had their 10,000 hours before their mid ‘20s, which fueled their later, unprecedented success. Second, in doing some research on Los Angeles for another article, I came across a statistic touted by The USC Stevens Center for Innovation:
“There are more artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, dancers and musicians living and working in Los Angeles than any other city at any time in the history of civilization”
But how many of this group can be considered experts? Let’s be extremely safe: we have not experienced an artistic revolution, therefore, we do not have the same critical mass of experts. Assuming LA has been minting expert artists for more than 10 years, we can easily conclude, our pace does not create a critical mass.

Has art just gone dull? LA has the most artistically dense population in history, using the most advanced technology in history, and we are still fascinated by speakeasies, movies, and cars. Perhaps there could be another cause for an artistic revolution, but it is beyond me to find it; where on earth could billions of dollars appear overnight?

An answer was, however, revealed to me nine months ago when I first asked a friend about car ownership. Billions are right here in LA, pending one simple fix to one major problem:
The cost of transportation.

I can’t imagine Fitzgerald, after the success of a few books, being in want in the 1920s. But buying luxury cars while living in Manhattan today, dilapidated or not, could only be a pastime of the super-rich.

In fact, the car is almost nothing at all what it once was. Joan Lowry, an AP Business writer with USA Today, casted doubt on America’s “Love Affair” with the automobile in a recent article, claiming Americans no longer drive as many miles, or buy as many cars—especially among teens and twenty-somethings. To them, the number of views they get online is more important than the number of heads their cars turn.

Furthermore, cars have become symbols of unsustainable living, foreign fuel dependency, anti-local community, pro-obesity, pro-pollution, pro-parking, and anti-park:
A satellite image of Dodger Stadium near Downtown Los Angeles 
Traffic fuels road rage, where we yell death threats that sound like justification for allowing 40,000 people in the US a year to be killed by the automobile (to give some scale, there are 440,000 death/yr from smoking in the US, about 1,500 deaths/yr by train in the EU, and about 800 deaths/yr from airplanes worldwide)—by the same cognitive dissonance logic, a car can actually be akin to smoking: “I know I’m killing myself, but I feel alive!”

Not only do cars destroy lives, they destroy themselves whether by extensive use or no use, atrophy eventually claims all automobiles after, on average, 20 years.

Cars do still have their uses: they’re fun, help move large loads, assist physically getting to remote destinations, and, parking aside, are generally the quickest way to travel over certain distances. But this usefulness is hardly capitalized on when cars sit parked for 95% of their lifetime (90% by this source).

The worst part about a modern car, however, is the cost. According to AAA, a car costs on average between $8,000 and $10,000 a year, or $160,000 after 20 years. The equivalent cost of putting a kid through a $40K/year four-year college.
The cost of a friend’s car in Los Angeles California, not including parking or contingency.
Why cars? Why do Angelenos, the largest group of creative people in history, spend so much on underutilized transportation and not art? After asking a myriad of people, these are the reasons I typically receive:
  • “It increases employable area, decreases rent, or saves time.” This argument is erroneous because at an extra expense of $8,000/year ($666/month), few can afford to lessen their employable area, increase their rent budget, or spend any more time searching for either. So really, the argument is a Chicken or Egg: Did the car allow for a far away job, or require a far away job?
  • “Public Transit isn’t reliable.” This is no different than unforeseen traffic or car problems when driving. Not only are passengers not responsible for fixing the train, there are usually multiple ways to get from one place to another via transit, and there are plenty of apps that give accurate Next Trip ETAs.
  • “The Metro isn’t convenient for me.” When I lived in West LA and commuted to Beverly Hills, a 15 min drive down Olympic, the bus “was not convenient” for me either. My pride, which said I was better than a 30 min bus ride, cost me ten times more money.
  • “Sitting on public transit forever will drive me crazy.” The Metro takes longer, there is no debate there. But with the widely available smart phone, people can spend more time gaming, web surfing, or engaging in relaxing and productive ways drivers can’t.
  • “Occasionally I work late, like late late.” Busses run 24/7. Also, thanks again to the smart phone, there are market priced ride sharing options like Uber, Lyft, or Sidecar.
  • “I have three auditions today, if I don’t have a car my hair will be ruined!” At four-hour increments, renting four times a week, Zipcar is still cheaper per year.
  • “Moving to centralized transit areas, like downtown, is too expensive.” If we adjust for rent without a car, we can add $600 to a rent budget downtown.
  • “It will rain on me.” Please go outside. I promise it’s nice.
There are many other reasons Angelenos use to justify owning a car, in fact it seems every car owner, without exception, is uniquely exempt from riding transit for one reason or another. But given the crushing cost of an automobile, the underlying reason I can’t seem to avoid is simple: popularity.
“Everything popular is wrong.” ~Oscar Wilde
Human Nature. Charles Mackay, in his book, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” first published in 1852, chronicles a whole gamut of delusions groups of people have believed throughout history despite contradictory scientific evidence, and how in each case, disaster follows.

The famous example is Tulip Mania in Holland during the 1600s when people believed tulip bulbs had more value than gold. One could finance an entire voyage across the Atlantic, ship, crew, and cargo for the cost of the right tulip. But the tulip bulb, simply being a flower, turned out to be a poor keeper of wealth, and when the tulip market crashed, the fortunes of thousands crashed with it.
Given the cost of a car and availability of public transit, inner city car ownership in LA has easily returned to its pre-1920 “luxury” status, but popularity explains why people still think they need their car. Popularity also explains why LA critically views those who take transit by choice as diseased, criminal, or crazy. And lastly, for anyone who has lived in any transit-oriented city, popularity explains why LA thinks no one should have to endure the “pains” of a 10 minute walk.

But when only five states have more cars than the number of cars registered in Los Angeles County at 5.8 million, the car in LA isn’t just popular, it’s extraordinarily popular.

“Thank you for riding Metro.” In November of 2008, two thirds of LA voted to approve Measure R, a 30 year, $40B tax to fund congestion relief. Measure R promises to expand the LA Metro, which is centered in downtown, and accessible by a $1.50/ride or $900/yr monthly pass.

Within the metro expansion, there are two projects of note. The first is the $1B, 6 mile Expo Line Phase II Light Rail extension from Culver City through Santa Monica to the beach, which will take about 10 years to build (rounding way up). The second, and most expensive, is the Westside Subway Extension, which will extend the Purple Line 6 miles underneath Wilshire Blvd from Korea Town to Century City. The cost is $4B, and it will take about 30 years (again, rounding way up).

Multiplying the $8,000/car by five million cars is $40B/yr spent on cars in LA. Over 30 years, that’s $1,200B vs. $40B for Measure R. By comparison, nearly two full orders of magnitude separate the two, raising a red flag: when dealing with orders of magnitude, saying the numbers will not suffice, scale must be given:
  • Scale for amount: For every 30 years LA continues to spend money on cars, we could build out, at Westside Subway Extension pricing, 1,800 miles of subway. This is the equivalent of building a subway under every freeway in LA County (527 miles), The NYC Subway (223 miles), The London Tube (250 miles), The Tokyo Subway (121 miles), Shanghai Metro (287 miles), and Seoul Metropolitan (327 miles) combined. By comparison, that’s probably not enough scale as most have not been to all those cities (myself included). So, imagine having a subway under every freeway, and under Beverly, Melrose, Santa Monica, Sunset, Hollywood, Wilshire, Olympic, Pico, Venice, Broadway, Grand, Brand, Eagle Rock, York, Ventura, Glendale, Verdugo, La Cienega, Fairfax, La Brea, Highland, Vine, Larchmont, Western, Normandy, Vermont, Hoover, Alvarado, Silverlake, Alameda, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Exposition, Vernon, Slauson, Colorado, Los Feliz, San Fernando, Lankershim, Magnolia, Sepulveda,Westwood, Overland, Mulholland, Robertson, Rodeo, Culver, Pacific Coast Highway, Century, El Segundo, Rosecrans, Aviation, Artesia, Del Amo, Figueroa, Crenshaw, San Vicente, Crescent Heights, and have literally hundreds of miles left to place (might as well put some express trains in)—and be able to do it all over again from scratch every 30 years. 
  •  We would have a subway system nearly three time more extensive than this:
A freeway Map of Southern California shown as a subway map,
  • Scale for speed: If it cost 4 times more to build out an Expo Line Phase II costing light rail in 1/4th the time, at $40B/yr, it would take nine years to pay for, but we could build a light rail above every freeway in LA County in 2.5 years. If it was a staggered build, we would have the largest rail network in the world by the 18th month of construction.
  • Scale accounting for conversion: We obviously can’t go cold turkey, so, if only 25% of car drivers in LA went Metro (1.25M people), that’s about $1B/yr more for Metro. If Metro was required to invest that in Capitol Improvements, which I doubt they are, over the course of 30 years, they could build 30 Expo Phase II equivalently costing light rails (180 miles) or the near equivalent of the entire Madrid Subway (182 miles). If we add our present 87 miles of rail we would have the 4th largest subway system in the world. The same is roughly true if 10% convert, and Metro doubles the fair.
For an artist, the question is simple:
Reading, movie watching, picture taking, filming, youtube browsing, subway dancing, book writing, TV bingeing, DJing, walking, composing, exercising, thinking, exploring, texting, Instagramming, Vining, Snapchatting, gaming, Facebooking, and general adventuring for $900 a year…
Being popular, cursing all of mankind, and getting there in half the time for $8,000
Self evident. Just as LA quickly dismantled its massive street car system in the ‘30s and ‘40s, it is completely capable of quickly building a more robust one today. The point here, though, is not to build out a massive LA subway, for then we would run into the same issue we presently have: spending too much money on transportation. But it is to show how transportation systems can serve the people who use them instead of the other way around.

All we need to do is stop using the car. We don’t even have to instigate a new tax or goofy marketing plan. But even if we did, and, for instance, put a 100% tax on the $40B/yr, we could easily build out the 1,800 miles of subway. 100% is too high? Singapore has been implementing a forward thinking new car tax upwards of 180% for the past 20 years. With the extra 80% we might as well directly connect all the major hubs in LA with a Hyperloop.

I have intentionally rounded these numbers against my argument because with orders of magnitude it hardly matters: there isn’t a single person who read that list of roads and whose eyes didn’t glaze over; the amount of money Angelenos individually and collectively spend on the extraordinarily popular car is delusional and a bubble is about to burst.
Greg (21, Male) moved to LA after graduating from Average Suburban College, North America, to pursue his life long ambition to write for film. He hasn’t made it yet, so, in the mean time, he landed a 50 hour a week, $20K/yr, day job to pay the bills and writes on the weekends. His schedule generally looks like this:

Greg’s Schedule with a car
His primary expense is his car, which he needed to move to LA, and loves like an old friend because it has saved his life (he recently named it “Greg 2”). Unfortunately, his job is far away and he has high-priced insurance for a bad driving history. Despite it being half his income, to Greg, Greg 2's cost is justified at $10,000 a year.

Presently, Greg writes for about 10 hours a week. At this pace Greg will hit his 10,000 hours in 1,000 weeks, or 20 years.

Greg just learned this fact.

Reanalyzing his life, he quickly realizes his job takes up most of his time, and it primarily supports his car. But if he loses the love of his life, he will spend at least twice as long in his commute and it will be on filthy public transit. However, he concludes the only way to become an expert screenwriter faster is to do something about his car.

Being young and not averse to risk, he tries public transit for a week. During the experiment he finds he is able to watch movies, and get some badly needed thinking in. At it’s conclusion, Greg comes home tired from the lack of extra time, but having spent $20 on his commute instead of $200, he sees his car as holding his dreams hostage:
Despite the possibility of an indefinite job search he sells his car.
While sitting on the bus for two months, he searches for and finds a new job, quitting his old one. It’s the same distance away, but it pays marginally better and he gets to work part time. He now makes enough to meet his expenses and has four completely empty days to write:
Greg’s schedule without a tied-to-the-tar car
Time Saved. Some argue that a car “saves time.” Greg’s car was saving him 10 hours a week of commute time, but costing him 30 hours a week of writing time. By dropping his car, and assuming he is completely unproductive during his commute, Greg netted ((13 hours x 3 days)-(2 hours x 2 days)) = 35 hours a week.

With this new schedule, Greg is now pursuing his dreams like a job instead of a hobby and figures he will reach his 10,000 screenwriting hours in five years instead of 20.

After living without a car in Los Angeles for a few months, Greg begins to see how owning his car was being irresponsible. He realizes his car was an unnecessary item, popping, in a small way, the last great lingering bubble of the 1920s. Now, average Greg is trying to move downtown to add even more time to his schedule.

Without cars, individual artists like Greg will suddenly find all the resources they could ever need to quickly become experts.

Car-free filmmaking. In a recent Variety article, Eric Garcetti, the newly elected Mayor of Los Angeles declared a state of “Emergency” regarding entertainment because film is leaving LA. That national TV show I assistant directed moved back to New York. But what if every filmmaker in LA dropped their car?

If Filmmaker Francesca sells her car, which was costing her $8,000/yr, she can afford a $1,000 bike, a metro pass, and rent in DTLA. Now, with recent advancements in filmmaking technology, and crowdsourcing options like Kickstarter she can afford a $6,000 proof of concept short. She has everything needed to secure funding to direct an ultra low budget independent feature, bringing her one step closer to her dream.

Sure, a car is needed to go on runs, and transport people or increasingly lightweight equipment to filming locations, but using that as justification for ownership is shortsighted. If everyone involved with film (say 2.5% of LA) stopped spending so much money on underutilized transportation and instead spent it, either directly or indirectly, on film, the amount invested in film would skyrocket by one billion dollars a year.

It’s not just film though, it’s every artistic industry in LA. They are all, in a sense, kidnapped by the car. And after two years working in film in LA without a car, and with the corroborated support of a handful of other writers, film makers, and musicians without cars, the potential to reach an artistic revolution worthy critical mass is palpable.

The question really isn’t, “How can you work in film in LA without a car?” but is “How can you be an artist in LA with one?”
“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” ~ William Gibson, 1993
Denial. There is still wide spread denial about the technological revolution because it is not fully understood. We are just like the girl in Midnight in Paris who didn’t know how important the ‘20s were, instead only seeing Belle Époque. Perhaps that’s why culture today is so fascinated with the ‘20s; they are as far back and as simple as the modern world can go. And just like the ‘20s, we too are in a world on the verge of putting the past away forever.

For example, the car and the cell phone are not yet seen as direct competitors. Coincidentally, a similar thing happened with the railroads in the 1920s. Railroad titans of the day thought they were in the railroad business when in fact they were in the transportation business. When the car and airplane came along, the titans didn’t see them as competition because they weren’t railroads. But they were competition, and they put the railroads out of business.

My cell phone lets me communicate information to anywhere, from anywhere, instantly. A car has the same functionality of communicating the same information, and was widely used as such over the last 100 years, but it does so by physically transporting the information storage unit—our brain. And it takes, by comparison, infinitely longer to do. People no longer need to drive to a location to use their phone or the internet, and in the information age, this makes cars obsolete economic waste or extravagant luxuries.

New wine does not fit into old wine skins, for the old wineskins break and the wine is ruined. And just as it’s dangerous to cross railroad tracks in a car, mixing cars and text messages is dangerous. Instead, new wine skins are needed; this isn’t just about cars, it’s about the way we process our world.

Greg knows. I failed to dwell on one key thing the Lost Generation had that also fueled the 1920s revolution. Being a recent college grad, Greg’s student loans were in deferment when we left him. When they exit deferment, he will have an additional $400 a month in expenses ($4,800/yr). His loans come out of deferment three months after landing his new job, and he has to take up a third day at work to pay for them. Putting him on pace to become an expert screenwriter in 6.7 years instead of five.

But what’s important here is not what happened to Greg, but what would have happened had Greg never sold his car: when the first loan payment was due, Hypothetical Greg would have either had to take up a weekend job and drop writing altogether, or sell his car. Hypothetical Greg decided to sell his car and search for a new job. He finds the same new job in the same two months (month eight), and works the same three days a week, on pace to be an expert in the same 6.7 years. No real difference, right?

But to the trained eye the difference is profound. Its importance is best described by J.K. Rowling in The Half Blood Prince:
“It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew — and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents — that there was all the difference in the world.”
Honor. In both cases Greg knew he was headed into the arena because of the student loans, but in the first case, he walks with his head held high, and the second, he is dragged. After eight months, one amasses 240 hours writing and the other 760 hours, a full three times more.

This difference is the definition of honor. That isn’t to say ditching your car is the honorable, moral thing to do. For each person it will be different, but it is to say, as anyone who is familiar with the story of Harry Potter knows, nothing is bestowed on those who aren’t courageous, and honor is bestowed on those who are.

LA is facing a radically different path than the last 100 years. Student loan debt is crushing America’s youth, and one of the few ways to relieve it is to adopt a car-free lifestyle. But student loans are only a drop in the bucket. What about the astonishing cost of getting into an accident, getting married, or having kids? If $40B is spent on cars in LA, and cars aren’t used 90% of the time, all of life and industry will be clamoring for a bit of that wasted $36B. Ride sharing is already claiming a stake, LA only has a short time to act before that waste is entirely exploited.

If LA does not courageously ditch the car, Measure R will create more under-serviced transit, artists will be stifled by their cars, and LA will continue to have a very hard time creating entertainment. At best, LA will maintain its sad state while other more modern cities surpass it.

But Los Angeles is full of more Gregs and Francescas than any other city at any time in the history of civilization. Pursuing art is never without risk, it is one of the most courageous endeavors anyone can undertake—it’s not art otherwise.

If LA acts out of this courageous fabric now, honor it will receive. Measure R is pithy in comparison to what can be done. If we can take advantage of this $40B/yr now, it is possible to build out the world’s largest metro system in four years, just like New York City did in 1900-1904, radically reducing ultimate transportation costs, and setting LA as the center of the artistic world for the indefinite future. And that’s not even counting honor, which promises three times more—

Perhaps LA could turn the LA river into the worlds longest city park, covered by dozens of beautiful bridges, start crazy new businesses, or do thousands of other things. About 5% of LA’s GDP, which is roughly the 5th largest market in the world, is essentially up for grabs each year. It’s hard to imagine any industry (excluding cars) that wouldn’t want a piece. What would you do with $7,000 extra a year?
This isn’t just conjecture either, with record setting ridership on the Metro, massively successful car-free movements like Art Walk or CycLAvia, and increasing amounts of people flocking to downtown, there is every reason to believe this movement has already begun.

Brave new world. I don’t know what the artistic revolution will look like. Whether we have seen pieces of it yet, or none of it at all. But I do know a few things about it: it has a higher likelihood of being centered in Downtown LA than anywhere else, and it will be entirely new.

The popular has one primary weapon against the new: criticism. Not all critics are artists, but all artists are critics. And there are, therefore, more critics in LA than anywhere. Just like the Flappers were seen as whores by the artists who came before them, this new, no-car LA is radically against the establishment.

An artistic revolution is no different than any revolution: a costly, merciless fight. Even as I write this, I want to put the whole idea away. It forces me to come to terms with the legitimate risk that because of this article, I may have to surrender my career; who knows whether or not people in LA will overcome their dependency on cars, and if not, no one will hire an Assistant Director who doesn’t have one. But, given the little hope of a pro-car future in LA, that is exactly what this is about—walking into the arena with my head held high.

Revolutions take courage and I have no intention of hiding my car-free life. I think for myself despite whatever is popular, for I understand, to the depths of my core, a great truth wonderfully stated in the film Ratatouille by the frigid food critic Anton Ego:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”
I am an Assistant Director. Not a Director. I don’t even want to be a director. For me, it’s not about being a great artist, it’s about assisting those artists who are courageous enough to one day be great.
Assistant Directors are in charge of time on set and when every second on set can cost $1 ($43,200/day), there is little time to waste. AD’s learn very fast to bring time saving information to the attention of others quickly, and not to waste time on information that doesn’t save time. In that regard, Assistant Directors and Ents are no different. Treebeard, an Ent in Peter Jackson’s, “The Two Towers,” said, and all ADs—painfully knowing a second to be a very long time—agree with:
“We never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say”
This article is unashamedly long because I can’t imagine a struggling artist in LA who would not be able to save a lifetime by it.

But it is also long to sift out those not worthy of it. This revolution is not for those who think a revolution can be fit into 140 characters, but who can look at five years and say, “HA! Once more!” —wanting to become an expert in a dozen things over a lifetime instead of just one. It is for those who can see this article not only as short, but as a fight for a new medium. And most important of all, it’s for the courageous, and no one else.
Where we go from here is a choice I leave to you.
My choice. Struggling to wake up at 10am on Tuesday in my eighth story apartment, I looked down the street though my bay windows at the tallest sky-scrapers on the west coast. I used my phone to check my app developers in India and the morning’s Facebook news: all was good. My beautiful girlfriend came over at noon and we decided on a day in a coffee shop.

Like Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris” we walked the 15 minutes to my favorite spot. After getting settled, I got a text from a beloved friend, actress, and writer. She had been yearning to see a musical at The Ahmanson Theatre. At three, I took a break from work and walked through a breezy Grand Park to the box office.

In the evening, scotch in hand, we three watched the sun set over the Hollywood Sign from my balcony. My friend exclaimed, “I‘m moving here next.”

The show was fantastic.

When I am not on set, this is a day in my life. Some ADs make a ton of money; I’m not one of them. I’m just an average car-less guy. I live Downtown, and today, I fought for a revolution.
On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées

Beyond “Level of Service” — New Methods for Evaluating Streets


By Angie Schmitt, October 23, 2013

Streetsblog reported earlier this month that transportation agencies are increasingly aware of the insidious consequences of using “Level of Service” as the primary metric for their projects. Because Level of Service only rewards the movement of motor vehicles, it promotes dangerous, high-speed streets and sprawling land use.

The question remains: How should streets and development projects be measured?

If this is what you want for your street, Level of Service won't get you there. You need a different performance measure. 

We mentioned that some places are switching to an analysis called multi-modal Level of Service. But Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard, says there are problems with that approach as well.

Multi-modal Level of Service, he says, takes “all of the narrow thinking around delay for cars and applies that same thinking to all the other modes.” For example, MM-LOS assumes pedestrians and transit riders have the same need as vehicles: “lack of congestion,” or space between others who travel the same way.

But what works for cars isn’t necessarily what works for other modes. For example, MM-LOS views “transit crowding” as a wholly negative thing. On this measure, an infill development might be penalized for leading to “crowding,” but a sprawling greenfield development would face no penalty, since it would produce fewer transit riders.

According to Tumlin, searching for a direct replacement for Level of Service is the wrong way to go, because part of the problem with Level of Service is the narrowness of its scope.

“LOS tells us about one thing [vehicle delay at intersections], but it doesn’t tell us about anything else,” says Tumlin. “What are all of the things we want our transportation system to do, and how do we measure whether it’s doing that or not?”

Tumlin’s advice to transportation professionals and public officials is to adopt performance measures based on expressed community values as well as the specifics of the project at hand.

For example, Tumlin said if he were designing an industrial park, Level of Service for trucks might be a primary performance measure. But on a retail street where economic development is the goal, parking availability or pedestrian friendliness might be the targeted performance measure.

If women feel safe walking on a commercial street at night, that's a great predictor of retail success, says Jeffrey Tumlin. 

“Pedestrian Level of Service and quality of service is a very complex science,” said Tumlin. “The things that pedestrians care about are comfort, the frequency of pedestrian crossings, how long they have to wait for a green. Some of the most important factors are really related to urban design and are very subjective.”

For measures like that, local governments and transportation agencies can survey local residents, Tumlin says. In fact, one of the best determinants of a healthy retail area, researchers have found, is the comfort level of women.

“If women felt safe there walking at night, [the street] was going to be comfortable for every mode, it was going to have high property values and retail success,” Tumlin said.

Ronald Milam, a consultant with Fehr and Peers, was part of a statewide committee in California that studied alternatives to LOS for Governor Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning. Milam is also the author of the e-book, LOS Gets a Failing Grade.

Most communities — even the most transit-rich, like San Francisco — continue to use Level of Service in some of their engineering, Milam says. But many California communities are bringing in new performance measures and reducing their focus on LOS.

Yolo County explicitly allows Level of Service “F” because the community prioritizes walkability over the speed of drivers. Yolo County also implemented a vehicle-miles-traveled threshold. For new housing developments, the county targeted projects that would generate less than 44 vehicle miles traveled per household per day.

One benefit of LOS is that it tells you how the user perceives the system, albeit only one kind of user: drivers. What LOS won’t tell you is how the system is performing overall.

Rather than examine LOS at each individual intersection in isolation, Milam says, the city of Pasadena looks at network-wide vehicle speeds as a leading performance measure. Network speed also tells you what you can expect when it comes to the severity of collisions, so in certain areas, like pedestrian districts, low speeds might be targeted.

Accessibility is another important performance metric. ”‘How close are the things you need?’ is a pretty important thing for us to be thinking about and planning.” Milam said. “You can solve an accessibility problem with either a transportation or a land use solution.”

Measuring the vehicle mileage generated by new development is another useful metric that several California communities are using. Traditional LOS gives preference to new developments in sprawling greenfield locations because they disperse vehicle traffic over a broad area, reducing congestion at any one intersection. But add up all those developments and the effect of that strategy is to encourage more driving overall, worsening congestion. A VMT measure, on the other hand, gives preference to projects in locations that lead to shorter and fewer vehicle trips.

In short, Tumlin says, the answer is to “stop fixating on this one metric” — Level of Service.
“Transportation performance measures are very important and they need to be simple enough to be understandable,” he said, “but they need to reflect all of the goals that we want our entire transportation system to achieve.”

Swinging Bus Stop in Montreal

Mythbusters tests which is more efficient, four-way stop or roundabout [w/poll]


Asked on the No 710 on Avenue 64 Facebook page: An idea for the Church/Avenue 64 intersection?


 By Damon Lowney, October 7, 2013



 Mythbusters performs a test to find out which intersection is faster: the roundabout or the four-way stop.

In the US, the four-way-stop intersection is king, with little competition from roundabouts. In Europe, things are reversed, and the roundabout is much more common than four-way-stop intersections. While it has been said before that the roundabout is a more efficient way to handle traffic at a busy intersection, Mythbusters aims to find out the truth.

We'll be the first to admit that roundabouts can be confusing to us Americans, but the Mythbusters crew thinks that could be a result of little familiarity with the traffic tool in the US. We were super curious to see the results of this test, and this writer admits to being on the wrong side of the fence when it came to guessing which intersection was more efficient.

So, which method is the most efficient? You'll have to watch the video below to find out. And regardless of the video's outcome, let us know which system you think is best in the poll below.

Which do you think is more efficient?

Roundabout        22,074 (79.5%)

Four-way stop      4,022 (14.5%)

I'm not sure           1,684 (6.1%)

Ride-sharing apps bad for the environment? L.A. councilman says yes.


By John Healey, October 23, 2013

Protest against Web-based car services

 William Rouse, general manager of Los Angeles Yellow Cab, takes questions from the media in June as hundreds of L.A.-area taxi drivers circle City Hall in their cabs to protest app-based car services.

The state Public Utilities Commission issued rules last month to govern how Uber, Lyft and other Web-based transportation services operate in California. But the PUC's action didn't satisfy the taxi industry and its allies, including Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, who don't want the state to take the regulatory wheel.

So Koretz is trotting out an argument familiar to anyone who's sought to block a competitor from entering the market: He contends that the PUC violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

That's not Koretz's sole argument against the PUC's new regulations, mind you. In an interview Tuesday, he said that the rules were inadequate in many ways to protect the public against fraudulent and unsafe ride-sharing services. And even if the rules were adequate, he argues that the PUC doesn't have the resources to enforce them. He's also worried that the new services won't serve the disabled or low-income areas in the city, which taxi companies are required to do. "It just seems like almost all negative for the consumer," he said.

SLIDE SHOW: 10 reasons to salute L.A.'s transportation future

In the motion that's pending before the City Council, Koretz also argues that the new services compete unfairly with cab companies because they "operate outside the rules and regulations established for passenger carriers such as taxis." And he contends that the PUC's decision violates the state law that gives cities the right to "regulate the supply of vehicles in the taxicab market."

The problem with these arguments, though, is that Uber, Lyft and other Web-based services aren't taxicab companies. They're technically "charter party carriers" because they offer rides only by pre-arrangement -- in their case, by using a smartphone app to summon a driver. And state law grants the PUC exclusive jurisdiction over charter party carriers.

The CEQA argument, on the other hand, challenges the legitimacy of the PUC's rule-making. Koretz's motion contends that the commission didn't "consider the wider environmental, economic and road safety impacts through the addition of thousands of for-hire vehicles that could increase congestion and pollution." It adds: "These environmental impacts were not analyzed and no opportunity for public input was provided, which violates the California Environmental Quality Act."

According to Tom Adams, a board member at the California League of Conservation Voters and an expert on CEQA, the act comes into play whenever an agency takes an action based on its discretion, as long as a "fair argument" can be made that the action "may have a significant effect on the environment." In that event, the agency has to prepare an environmental impact report or issue a finding that the environment won't be hurt by the action.

The PUC did neither. Instead, it determined that there was no need for an environmental review at this point, according to Andrew Kotch, an information officer at the commission. That's because "the number of miles driven around will likely not increase because [the new services' cars] only go to a customer upon request, unlike some cabs that roam the streets," Kotch wrote in an email.

In other words, even if Uber, Lyft and company somehow draw "thousands of for-hire vehicles" into the city, the PUC sees them as substitutes for cabs, not additional cars. That makes sense intuitively; it's unlikely that Angelenos will abandon trains, buses and sidewalks in droves for a much more expensive alternative, even if that alternative is more efficient than a cab. And by driving fewer miles than the taxis they displace, the new services may actually reduce congestion.

In its order, the PUC teed up a CEQA review when it revisits the new services and regulations through a series of workshops next year. “Workshop topics will include, but not necessarily be limited to, a consideration of safety, competition, innovation, accessibility, congestion, the California Environmental Quality Act, and other pollution related issues," the order states.

A party trying to force an agency to follow CEQA doesn't have to prove that the environment will be significantly affected, but it can't simply speculate that the agency's action would have such an effect. "There must be some 'substantial' evidence," Adams wrote in an email. "Typically that takes the form of an opinion from an expert, but it could come from a study that has been published somewhere."

Remaking the San Fernando Valley: Pedestrian-friendly, community-oriented projects underway


By Rick Orlov, October 22, 2013


 Looking to capitalize on CSUN and the new $125 million Performing Arts Center, a group of local residents and businesses wants to develop a "University Village" concept that would make the area stand out among San Fernando Valley communities. This a view of Reseda Boulevard near Nordhoff Street.

From Northridge to Panorama City and Sun Valley to Sherman Oaks, new efforts are underway to provide a greater sense of community to the disparate neighborhoods that make up the San Fernando Valley.

Borrowing from the “centers concept” developed by former Planning Director Calvin Hamilton in the 1970s, the latest plans focus on creating town centers in each community — areas that will be pedestrian friendly and serve as a meeting place for residents.

“The centers concept is very much alive,” said Alan Bell, deputy director of the city Planning Department. “When the concept was being developed, the vision was to protect single family areas while allowing the city to grow. And Los Angeles is still growing, unlike a lot of other cities.
“What we want to do is take the pressure off of densifying single family neighborhoods while providing the housing needed for our residents.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti, who takes credit for giving Hollywood — his district when he was on the City Council — more of a smart urban design with growth around transit centers, wants to take the idea a step further with his “great streets” proposal.

Under the plan announced earlier this month, a working group from eight city agencies will examine areas of the city where new medians, bus stops, bike racks, pocket parks and other amenities can be put at intersections to serve as a base for creating new commercial/retail areas with restaurants, shops and other services.

“The Valley will certainly be represented,” Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb said. “But as for specifics, we will see what recommendations the task force develops.”

In its initial work, the task force will identify 40 options citywide.

Some communities have been actively working for years to accomplish similar goals on their own.
North Hollywood, for example, is seeing results from years of efforts to remake the NoHo Arts District into a regional draw with a concentration of live theater and restaurants and other transit-friendly development near the Red Line. Recently, Councilman Paul Krekorian won City Council approval to try to revitalize the Valley Plaza area.
“We need to move forward with a revitalized Valley Plaza shopping center that will uplift our community rather than degrade it, that will contribute to the ongoing economic recovery of the area and create jobs, and that will include neighborhood-serving businesses, restaurants and community amenities,” Krekorian said.

The Sherman Oaks area has also been working for years to create a sense of community, said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association.

“What I’ve seen, especially in the San Fernando Valley, is that people identify with their community,” Close said.

“You ask people where they live and they say Sherman Oaks or Studio City rather than the city of Los Angeles. We all know we live in the city, but we are more concerned about our local neighborhood community.”

Close said Sherman Oaks concentrates its efforts on Ventura Boulevard to let people know where they are in comparison to Studio City or Encino.

“We have worked hard to make our community different and better,” Close said. “We are not a high-rise community, but one that provides services our residents are looking for.”

Robert Scott, a former planning commissioner and consultant who works on community plans, said he sees a new renaissance for smaller urban communities.

“What we are recommending is creating a sense of place,” Scott said. “In Panorama City, we want to see it rediscover itself into the central shopping mecca it once was for the entire Valley. In Sun Valley, it’s a different problem. You have an obsolete industrial area and residents are looking to rethink what their community is and what makes it special.”

Scott helped to develop a proposal called Northridge Vision 2012 that looks to take advantage of Cal State Northridge and the school’s new Performing Arts Center as a draw to the area.

“We were looking to make the area of Reseda Boulevard more than a long hot blacktop,” Scott said. “We thought the best way is to take advantage of what CSUN and the Performing Arts Center brings to the region.”

Bell said a factor in making the various plans is to recognize how unique each area is.
“We are not taking a cookie-cutter approach,” Bell said. “Good planning builds on what is already there, and you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. You want to create a unique sense of place for each area.”

Metro Board to consider approval of concept for Union Station Master Plan that would add new concourse and relocate bus plaza


By Steve Hymon, October 22, 2013

Work on the Los Angeles Union Station Master Plan has been underway for more than a year, with Metro staff and contractors tackling some big questions about the best way to improve the facility Metro purchased in 2011.

The Master Plan team is asking the agency’s Board of Directors on Thursday for approval to further develop a concept that would construct a greatly expanded east-west passenger concourse while relocating the bus plaza to a north-south configuration closer to Alameda Street that would also consolidate many of the bus stops around Union Station.

The above staff handout includes several good visuals that best explain the concept. It’s important to keep in mind that these are not final designs by any means — in other words, these are not architectural plans. Rather, it’s a chance for the Board to start their process of deciding what-goes-where on the 40-acre Union Station property.

As the staff report below explains, some of the rationale for this approach for the relocated bus terminal are:
• More flexibility to grow and change, if needed;
• Best connections/transfers to other modes;
• Preserve the historic integrity of the station;
• Strongest connection to existing street bus stops including the Silver Line/EI Monte transitway and Alameda and Cesar Chavez bus routes;
• Most successful at minimizing pedestrian/bus conflicts.
The report also explains the reasons for pursuing an East-West Passenger Concourse:
• Creates strong east/west spine across the site both to accommodate transit and knit together the two sides of the property;
• Can be phased to work with SCRIP, leveraging the opportunity to realize improvements in the concourse while accommodating the access changes necessitated by SCRIP [SCRIP is the acronym for the run-through tracks project that will allow trains to arrive and depart from Union Station to both the north and south];
• Allows a reconfiguring of the east side of the property which can promote development;
• Frees up the historic station for re-programming that creates a destination not completely reliant upon the transit uses.
Naturally, a few questions have been raised about two existing current structures — the Patsaouras Transit Plaza and the Mozaic Apartments. Bottom line: Under the new plan, the transit plaza would be relocated and the Mozaic perhaps replaced. The large four-story underground parking garage built as part of the transit plaza would remain.

Of course, it’s still going to take quite some time to finish the master plan, have the new buildings designed, engineered and then secure funding for them. By the time that occurs, both the existing transit plaza and apartment building will have likely been around for quite some time.

One project that is going forward — with federal funding — is the new El Monte Busway station on the south side of the Union Station property along the 101 freeway. In the meantime, Metro is also working on several other fronts, including an effort to better link Union Station to the surrounding area and provide more amenities in the existing station.

Union Station Master Plan item

'Airpocalypse': Severe pollution cripples northeastern China


By Barbara Demick, October 22, 2013

See website for a video.

BEIJING -- A large swath of northeastern China has been virtually paralyzed for two days by severe air pollution that forced airports and schools to close and drivers to turn on their headlights in the middle of the day.

The “airpocalypse” was blamed on the start of the winter heating season Sunday in a region that still uses coal-powered plants and the burning of fields at the end of the harvest. The lack of wind and high humidity also contributed to the severe pollution, meteorologists told the state media.

In Harbin, a city of 12 million world-famous for its wintertime ice festival, the smog was so thick that visibility was reduced to 20 yards. Municipal bus drivers lost their way in the haze. In one case, a morning rush hour bus that left at 5:30 wandered around for three hours before the driver found the route.

Expressways around the city were closed and the pedestrians who braved the outdoors mostly wore face masks.

Other cities that experienced unusually high pollution, which local media labeled as record-breaking, included Changchun, capital of Jilin province, and Shenyang, capital of Liaoning.

The emergency was a stark reminder of the high costs of China’s breakneck economic development. Beijing occasionally experiences days during which pollution veers into hazardous levels, but it is rare in the far north of the country.

Doctors warned that residents could experience respiratory symptoms in coming days.

"The impact of air pollution on people will be gradual. There won't be a sudden outbreak of symptoms, but normally three to five days after the smoggy weather occurs, there is a peak in the number of people seeing doctors," Deng Ying, a doctor at the Second Affiliated Hospital of Harbin Medical University told China’s New China News Agency.

Officials said that PM 2.5, the fine particulate matter that is most destructive to the lungs, was over 500 micrograms per cubic meter in most of the city Tuesday and in some downtown locations reached up to 1,000. A reading over 300 is considered hazardous by the World Health Organization.
Harbin’s daily newspaper said that 2,000 schools, mostly kindergartens, primary and middle schools, had been ordered closed on Monday and Tuesday. The city of Harbin’s website instructed residents to drive with their headlights on at reduced speed.

Pedestrians complained they had difficulty making their way because visibility was so low.
“I’m in Harbin holding your hand, but I can’t see your face,’’ wrote one microblogger on the popular Sina.com website.

More hazardous air days are expected in coming weeks as temperatures drop and the heating is turned on throughout northern China. Beijing on Tuesday announced emergency measures that would force schools to close and cars to be restricted to odd-even-day driving based on their license plates if pollution reaches critical levels.

Kutsuplus — New Personalized Bus Service Takes You Wherever You Want To Go

The Helsinki Regional Transport Authority recently began implementing a rather interesting new public transportation solution — a fully personalized bus service where you choose both pick-up and destination points.
The service — known as Kutsuplus — works something like a cross between a typical city bus service and a taxi service. The pricing is similar — a bit more expensive than a bus, but notably cheaper than a taxi.
Image Credit: Helsinki Transit Authority
Image Credit: Helsinki Transit Authority

The program is pretty simple, for those that want to use it — simply register, put money into your account, and then select your pick-up and destination spots.
TreeHugger has more:
Through a smart phone app, a user can set a departure time just minutes in the future. The app issues a ticket after withdrawing money from the wallet, and draws a walking map to the departure stop.
The heart of Kutsuplus is an algorithm that determines the most direct route for passengers’ requested rides and groups together passengers going in the same general direction. Similar to taxis, the ride price is calculated on a set fee plus per kilometer charge. So for a Kutsuplus ride of three kilometers, the charge would be Euro 3.5 for the base price plus Euro 1.35 for the three kilometers. This is more than a bus ride (which average about 2 – 4 Euros) but less than a taxi.
There are currently only ten Kutsuplus buses in service in Helsinki, but there are plans to roll-out another 35 or so buses sometime in the near future. As the service is still in its pilot phase, the hours are somewhat restricted — the buses operate from around 7:30 am until about 6:30 pm.
As a side note to those considering using service, the buses provide free wifi.

Read more at http://cleantechnica.com/2013/10/22/kutsuplus-new-personalized-bus-service-takes-wherever-want-go/#g8tiIMdvdUHrusQa.99

The Helsinki Regional Transport Authority recently began implementing a rather interesting new public transportation solution — a fully personalized bus service where you choose both pick-up and destination points.

The service — known as Kutsuplus — works something like a cross between a typical city bus service and a taxi service. The pricing is similar — a bit more expensive than a bus, but notably cheaper than a taxi.

Image Credit: Helsinki Transit Authority
Image Credit: Helsinki Transit Authority

The program is pretty simple, for those that want to use it — simply register, put money into your account, and then select your pick-up and destination spots.
TreeHugger has more:
Through a smart phone app, a user can set a departure time just minutes in the future. The app issues a ticket after withdrawing money from the wallet, and draws a walking map to the departure stop.

The heart of Kutsuplus is an algorithm that determines the most direct route for passengers’ requested rides and groups together passengers going in the same general direction. Similar to taxis, the ride price is calculated on a set fee plus per kilometer charge. So for a Kutsuplus ride of three kilometers, the charge would be Euro 3.5 for the base price plus Euro 1.35 for the three kilometers. This is more than a bus ride (which average about 2 – 4 Euros) but less than a taxi.
There are currently only ten Kutsuplus buses in service in Helsinki, but there are plans to roll-out another 35 or so buses sometime in the near future. As the service is still in its pilot phase, the hours are somewhat restricted — the buses operate from around 7:30 am until about 6:30 pm.

As a side note to those considering using service, the buses provide free wifi.

Virginia Gas Tax Could be Model for Federal Transportation Tax


By Irwin Dawid, October 23, 2013

Could Virginia, the state that did away with its gasoline excise tax entirely, be the template for a new federal transportation funding system? By using multiple taxes and fees, they present an alternative to simply raising the federal gas tax.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, suggested last month that Virginia's new funding scheme, particularly the new wholesale sales gas tax, could be a model for a replacement of the federal gas tax.

Nathan Hurst writes that Congress, "look(ing) for creative ways to shore up the Highway Trust Fund" in advance of the expiration of MAP-21 next September, is considering doing just what Boxer suggested by studying Virginia's new law as a possible template to consider.

According to Hurst, the main advantage of the wholesale tax is that it "would solve one of the central problems facing the trust fund by naturally adjusting for inflation."
The per-gallon tax of 18.4 cents for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel hasn’t been increased since 1993, so the trust fund’s buying power has steadily eroded with rising prices. Taxing a percentage of wholesale motor fuels costs would boost revenue as prices rise without forcing lawmakers to revisit the question with politically painful votes to raise taxes."
Of course, this assumes that the price of gas increases. Maintaining the excise tax, a path that neighboring Maryland took, would provide a healthy check on revenue should gas prices stabilize or decrease.
In fact, Virginia did away with its statewide 17.5 cents-per-gallon tax at the gas pump entirely, in favor of a new wholesale tax of 3.5 percent on gasoline and 6 percent on diesel, along with an increase in the state’s general sales tax. In the heavily populated Washington suburbs and Tidewater area, motorists pay an extra 2.1 percent sales tax on gas purchases. Drivers of electric [and hybrid] vehicles pay a $64 annual fee.
[Note: The 2.1 percent gasoline sales tax charged in certain northern Virginia suburbs predates the new law which maintained and expanded its reach. Chelyen Davis of The Free Lance-Star explains:
Drivers in Northern Virginia localities—including Spotsylvania, Stafford and Fredericksburg—already pay an extra 2.1 percent in gas tax for local roads, and the new law levies the additional 2.1 percent in Hampton Roads localities.
Furthermore, shoppers in these areas saw the general sales tax rise to 6 percent as opposed to 5.3 percent elsewhere when the new tax system was implemented on July 1, according to Davis.]
As noted above, Maryland maintained its 23.5-cent gas tax, adjusted it for inflation, and added a new wholesale gasoline sales tax, initially set at 1 percent and increasing to 2 percent in 2015.
However, it should be recognized that Virginia's new tax scheme is successful in that it raises more revenue than the 17.5-cent gas tax it replaced.
Sean T. Connaughton, Virginia’s Transportation secretary, says the wholesale tax should provide more long-term stability than the cents-per-gallon tax that it replaced.
“We were able to show our legislature that we weren’t going to have enough money, even for federal matches, by 2017,” he said.
Of course, applying the complex new tax scheme was no easy matter, as Davis writes.
“It’s the most convoluted thing you’ve ever seen,” said Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association president Michael O’Connor, adding that the tax change [effective July 1] has prompted more calls and questions from gas station owners than he’s seen in his 13 years at VPCGA.
Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell and the state legislature, like President Obama and Congress, were unwilling to raise an existing tax - so he came up with a complex alternative that raises more revenue than the current tax which hadn't been raised since 1986. While that may not be the best model to follow, it does present an attractive alternative to legislators trying so desperately to avoid a straightforward gas tax increase not done in 20 years, a path followed since the federal gas tax was first applied in 1932.

An alternative path would be to consider the proposal by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) to index the current 18.4-cent gas tax for inflation. Applying the index would mean that, at least initially, Congress could claim that they haven't increased a tax.

Full Story: Congress Eyes Virginia's Model for Funding Transportation Projects

Metro Board of Directors to consider extending ExpressLanes account maintenance fee waiver


The Metro Board of Directors on Thursday will consider extending the waiver of the $3 account maintenance fee charged to ExpressLanes accountholders who use the lanes three times or less per month.

In April, the Board approved a motion by Zev Yaroslavskyin to waive the fee for those who live or work in Los Angeles County.

As the above Metro staff report notes, there has generally been a positive response to the waiver as more people have signed up for ExpressLanes accounts this year. The waiver has — as expected — also encouraged more infrequent users of the ExpressLanes while cutting into Metro revenues for the ExpressLanes pilot program.

Staff believes the positives outweigh the negatives and is recommending to continue the waiver through the duration of the pilot program.

After the pilot program ends in February 2014, the ExpressLanes will be evaluated by an outside firm and the Metro Board will subsequently decide whether to continue the program.

As ExpressLanes Flourish, Zev Moves to End Transponder Fees


By Damien Newton, October 22, 2013

 Unanswered in the report, is Metro making more cash off of irregular users occasionally using the lanes than it is losing cash from the transponder fee waiver.
(Note: According to The Source, I misunderstood the wording of the motion. An earlier version of this article mentioned that staff opposed extending the transponder fee. Apparently they wish to see it extended through the end of the ExpressLanes pilot in February 2014)

Metro’s two staff reports to the Board of Directors on the progress of the ExpressLanes pilot program is full of good news. Over the last five months, there has been a 41% increase in transponder sales in L.A. County. The lanes will generate between $16 million and $19 million for investment in the corridors along the I-10 and I-110 in addition to the funding provided by the FTA for the experiment.

The transponder.

However, more and more people are holding FastTrak accounts that aren’t regular users.  The number of LA County accounts with infrequent trips increased by 71% from 49,759 to 85,102; the number of accounts with zero trips increased by 103% from 22,053 to 44,767.

The reason the Metro report is only reporting on accounts held within L.A. County is because transponder fees for L.A. County residents purchased through Metro were waived by a Board Action from the April meeting. The holiday from fees is only a six month experiment.

Originally, the ExpressLanes program included a small monthly “maintenance fee” for people that owned transponders and had active accounts but weren’t using the lanes more than a couple of times a month. Following a media uproar (note: Streetsblog covered it first), the Metro Board decided to waive the fee for six months as a pilot program within the pilot program. Basically, if you didn’t use the lanes in some form, you had to pay a $3 maintenance fee.,

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky sits on the Metro Board of Directors and wants to permanently end the transponder fee for accounts that don’t use the ExpressLanes system (or don’t have their transponder account and TAP account linked together).  Metro staff agree that the positives outweigh the negatives, at least for now.

The report that provides the above statistics also recommends letting the maintenance fee return at the end of the trial period. Metro pays a maintenance fee of $3 per month to as part of its contract with FasTrak, the company managing the program. If Metro continues to waive the fee, the agency will have to pay FasTrak $1.5 million more out of another coffers. With net revenue estimated between $16 million and $19 million, that is nearly 10% of the net revenue.

Metro staff also claims that the transponders are not a barrier into entering the ExpressLanes system.
A recent survey of existing FasTrak customers also illustrates that the maintenance fee is not a deterrent to opening an account. Of the 5% of customers who cited maintenance fee 74% are 110 users.

Staff included this helpful chart.

The findings of Metro’s study is something of a surprise. Environmentalists and transportation reform advocates who back the concept of congestion pricing worried that a transponder requirement for carpools would reduce carpooling in Southern California. Adding a maintenance fee on top of the requirement to own the transponder would be doubly onerous.

Of course, the survey is of people who are already FasTrak users, not people who are not or are considering becoming account holders. People who already own an account have either made the decision to live with the fee or

But regardless of the survey, Yaroslavsky is more impressed with the decline in complaints on the hotline since the maintenance fee was reduced and especially the increased participation in the program.

“More revenue coming in, more people are participating. (The waiver of the fee) Got the program to where we wanted it to be,” said Vivian Rescalvo, Yaroslavsky’s long-standing transportation deputy. “We should permanently waive the fee so even more people will use it to get on the fast track in Southern California.”

The issue will be decided at the Metro Board meeting this Thursday morning. If the Board the maintenance fee for irregular users will resume on November 5. If the Board approves the staff suggestion, then the fee not be collected for the duration of the pilot project. After the pilot program ends in February 2014, the ExpressLanes will be evaluated by an outside firm and the Metro Board will subsequently decide whether to continue the program.