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, December 4, 2013

Air pollutants poison the bowel.


By Ruth Green, December 4, 2013

 Air pollution

Air pollution has long been implicated as a cause of heart and lung disease, in part because it triggers inflammation in the body. While research into the role of air pollution on gastrointestinal diseases is still in its early stages, a link has already been established. The development of inflammatory bowel diseases has 3 main factors associated with its development – genetic factors, environmental factors and the subsequent immune response.

Air pollution creates inflammation…

Air pollution and environmental toxins in general all promote inflammation and this is basically the immune system reacting to the poison. Over time, if this inflammation continues, the immune system can begin to malfunction, and begin attacking the body’s own cells. IBD did not emerge until after industrialization, so while environmental factors like air pollution may not explain its cause entirely, a strong role appears likely.

One theory for how air pollution might contribute to gastrointestinal tract disease is that it may alter the make-up of bacteria in your gut – a factor that’s being linked to chronic disease of all kinds. The good bacteria in the gut is essential to maintaining good health. They manufacture vitamins, prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria, and help to regulate gut and immune function. If air-pollution alters the balance of good and bad bacteria, this sets the scene for digestive dysfunction to develop. Air pollutant particles may irritate the gut lining, making it more permeable.

A study using mice showed that on exposure to air pollutant particles, they displayed an increased inflammatory response, greater gut permeability, alteration to gut flora, and a decrease in the responsiveness in certain types of white blood cells.[1]

Reducing the risk…

Avoiding air pollution is almost impossible, particularly in cities.  However, there are some measures that can be taken to reduce exposure, as it’s not just car fumes that cause air pollution. Chemicals from cleaners, paints, floorboards, carpets and plastics all contribute to pollution, particularly inside the house. Reducing exposure might include reducing the amount of chemicals you use in your home, having indoor plants or an air purifier. Having the windows open in the house or office can also help.
Taking a proactive approach to health is the key; reducing exposure to the hazards of 21st century life may be the only way to avoid all the problems that go along with it.

[ 1]  Kish. L et al. Environmental particulate matter induces murine intestinal inflammatory responses and alters the gutmicrobiome. PLoS One. 2013 Apr 24;8(4)

Apps to smooth your journey


Stephanie Rosenbloom, December 4, 2013


Many travel apps, while great in principle, are too complicated, wonky or simply not helpful enough to earn a spot on your smartphone home screen. Some, however, can make travel easier. And who doesn’t want that during the frantic holiday season? Besides, now that smartphones can be used during takeoff and landing, there’s no time like the present to turn yours into a personal travel assistant. So whether this season’s travels take you up in the air or on the road, here are a few of my favorite apps to make the journey smoother.

FREE WI-FI FINDER. You’re touring an unfamiliar city and in need of Wi-Fi — make that free Wi-Fi. With the tap of a button, this app (also free) uses your smartphone’s GPS to find nearby public Wi-Fi hot spots, be it at a coffee shop, hotel or city park. You can filter the results, which pop up on a map (or in list form if you prefer) by “venue type,” such as bar, hotel or library. Tap one of the locations on the map (or list) and you’ll be shown the address and directions to the hot spot. Free Wi-Fi Finder, which also allows you to search for a particular Wi-Fi spot, works in more than 100 countries, including the United States, Japan and Italy, and allows you to star favorites so you can easily find them again.

HEYWIRE. When traveling internationally, certain apps can save you money by enabling you to send text messages and photos without the usual phone company texting fees.WhatsApp is among the most popular, but another player, HeyWire, has some fun time-sucking features, like the ability to place digital stickers on the photos you’ve taken (who doesn’t want to slap a propeller cap on their travel companion?). A “meme” button allows you to add bold, all-caps text to your photos. You can also post photos to Twitter or Facebook through the app. Texts between you and anyone else with HeyWire are free anywhere in the world. If the person you’re texting doesn’t have the app, international texting is still free to any smartphone in the United States and Canada and most phones in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Everywhere else, regular text fees would apply. Keep in mind that wherever you are, you still need a data connection, like 3G or Wi-Fi, to send texts. (The app itself is free for the first year and 99 cents a year thereafter.)

When you download HeyWire, you’re assigned a United States phone number, which is what people who don’t have the app will see when you message them, so be sure to let them know it’s you. Note to minimalists: HeyWire is cluttered with a few too many bells and whistles, and there are advertisements in the app (not in the texts you send). But hey, it’s an inexpensive, entertaining way to stay in touch on the go.

HOTELTONIGHT. This free app enables you to find and book discounted same-day hotel rooms (thanks to unsold inventory) in more than 200 destinations worldwide. HotelTonight has been around for a few years, but it became more useful late last month when it began posting its daily deals at 9 a.m. local time, instead of noon. The app, which includes photos of the hotels and categorizes them (such as “basic,” “hip,” “luxe”), is most helpful if you end up stranded in a city. For instance, if you find yourself stuck at Kennedy Airport this Christmas, you can select “New York City — Airports” and find and book a room (up until 2 a.m. local time) without having to figure out which nearby hotels are available. (Speaking of airport snafus, many savvy travelers use the app FlightStats to track flights and keep abreast of delays and airport conditions.) HotelTonight occasionally turns up deals compelling enough to inspire a last-minute jaunt (you can’t book a room in advance, but you can book it for more than one night). According to the site’s executives, the lowest rates this holiday season can be had on Sundays, followed by Fridays.

IEXIT. We’ve all been there: driving on a freeway, hungry and in need of gas, a Starbucks, a Holiday Inn or all of the above. IExit enables you to push a button and see what’s coming up at major exits. You can then view restaurants and stores in list form or on a map (the app cautions drivers to refrain from using iExit unless they pull over or have a fellow passenger be in charge). The “lite” version is free but has advertisements; a 99 cent version has no ads and enables you to set up alerts for food or lodging and to see 150 exits down the road (as opposed to just 10 exits in the “lite” version).

PINTEREST. The creators of this digital scrapbooking site and free app finally realized that throngs of people were using Pinterest to plan, track and reflect on their travel experiences. The result: a new feature called Place Pins that allows users to add to their virtual pinboards maps with pins that include details, addresses and phone numbers. They can then send those boards to friends to share favorite sights. Or, say you’re touring Paris and snapping photos with your smartphone along the Champs-Élysées: You can immediately put those photos on a map with directions to each spot. So you’re not just taking pictures — you’re creating a photo album-cum-map that will show you exactly where you were when you bought those macarons.

POCKET. Most of us browse content on multiple devices and bookmark or email ourselves things to read later when we’re on an airplane, bus or in the back seat of a car. Pocket consolidates all of your digital reading material (articles, videos, images) in one spot — and on a clean, minimalist interface. It syncs across your devices, and you don’t need an Internet connection to read the content you send to Pocket. Tap the “how to save” button for a list of all the ways that you can send Pocket the things you wish to read later, be they links from web browsers, mobile browsers, your email inbox, Twitter or apps like Flipboard and Zite. It takes a few steps to set up, but once you do, you’re on the road not just to your destination, but to digital organization.

UBER. Cabs can be hard to come by, especially in bad weather. Enter Uber, which makes ordering a black car or taxi on demand in more than 20 countries — including New York, Paris, Berlin, Abu Dhabi and Tokyo — as easy as ordering in dinner. Begin by downloading the app and adding your credit card or PayPal account information. When you want a ride, the app will pinpoint your location using your smartphone’s GPS (and give you an estimate of how far away the closest car is), then select the type of car you want (like a black car or SUV). The app will show you your driver’s name, photo and a way to get in touch. And you’ll receive a text when it’s arriving: no waiting on a street corner in the cold. Tips are included in the price (unless you select the taxi option) and a receipt will be emailed to you. (If Uber is not available where you’re traveling, there are other taxi and car service apps you can try, like HailoTaxi Magic and MyTaxi.)

The global poor need cheap fossil fuels


By Bjorn Lomborg, December 5, 2013

 Over the last 30 years, China moved an estimated 680 million people out of poverty by giving them access to modern energy, mostly powered by coal. Yes, this has resulted in terrible air pollution and a huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions. But it is a trade-off many developing countries would gratefully choose

There's a lot of hand-wringing about our warming planet, but billions of people face a more immediate problem: They are desperately poor, and many cook and heat their homes using open fires or leaky stoves that burn dirty fuels like wood, dung, crop waste and coal. About 3.5 million of them die prematurely each year as a result of breathing the polluted air inside their homes — about 200,000 more than the number who die prematurely each year from breathing polluted air outside, according to a study by the World Health Organisation.

There's no question that burning fossil fuels is leading to a warmer climate and that addressing this problem is important. But doing so is a question of timing and priority. For many parts of the world, fossil fuels are still vital and will be for the next few decades, because they are the only means to lift people out of the smoke and darkness of energy poverty.

More than 1.2 billion people around the world have no access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook for 2012. Most of them live in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia. That is nearly four times the number of people who live in the United States.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, excluding South Africa, the entire electricity-generating capacity available is only 28 gigawatts — equivalent to Arizona's — for 860 million people. About 6.5 million people live in Arizona.

Even more people — an estimated 3 billion — still cook and heat their homes using open fires and leaky stoves, according to the energy agency. More efficient stoves could help. And solar panels could provide LED lights and power to charge cellphones. But let's face it. What those living in energy poverty need are reliable, low-cost fossil fuels, at least until we can make a global transition to a greener energy future. This is not just about powering stoves and refrigerators to improve billions of lives but about powering agriculture and industry that will improve lives. Over the last 30 years, China moved an estimated 680 million people out of poverty by giving them access to modern energy, mostly powered by coal. Yes, this has resulted in terrible air pollution and a huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions. But it is a trade-off many developing countries would gratefully choose.

As China becomes wealthier, it will most likely begin to cut its air pollution problem through regulation, just as the rich world did in the 20th century. But, admittedly, cutting carbon-dioxide emissions will be much harder because these emissions are a byproduct of the cheap energy that makes the world go around.

Today, 81 per cent of the planet's energy needs are met by fossil fuels, and according to the International Energy Agency, that percentage will be almost as high in 2035 under current policies, when consumption will be much greater. The unfortunate fact is that many people feel uncomfortable facing up to the undeniable need for more cheap and reliable power in the developing world.

The Obama administration announced recently, for instance, that it would no longer contribute to the construction of coal-fired power plants financed by the World Bank and other international development banks. This should not have been a surprise. The last time the World Bank agreed to help finance construction of a coal-fired power plant, in South Africa in 2010, the United States abstained from a vote approving the deal.

The Obama administration expressed concerns that the project would "produce significant greenhouse gas emissions." But as South Africa's finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, explained at the time in The Washington Post, "To sustain the growth rates we need to create jobs, we have no choice but to build new generating capacity — relying on what, for now, remains our most abundant and affordable energy source: coal."

The developed world needs a smarter approach toward cleaner fuels. The United States has been showing the way. Hydraulic fracturing has produced an abundance of inexpensive natural gas, leading to a shift away from coal in electricity production. Because burning natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide of coal, this technology has helped the United States reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the lowest level since the mid-1990s, even as emissions rise globally. We need to export this technology and help other nations exploit it. At the same time, wealthy Western nations must step up investments into r search and development in green energy technologies to ensure that cleaner energy eventually becomes so cheap that everyone will want it. But until then they should not stand in the way of poorer nations as they turn to coal and other fossil fuels.  This approach will get our priorities right. And perhaps then, people will be able to cook in their own homes without slowly killing themselves.

Types of Air Pollution Caused by Cars


By Brett Smith, December 4, 2013

While motor vehicles are a necessity of modern life, they are a significant source of air pollution. Some of the compounds released by combustion engines, such as sulfur dioxide, can have severe health effects after just a short exposure period. Other pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, can take decades to have a cumulative, yet significant effect on the environment.

Greenhouse Gases

According to the EPA, 28 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States for 2011 were from transportation sources. Out of these emissions -- about half were from cars and light trucks.
The amount of carbon dioxide emitted per gallon of fuel used depends on its carbon content. While there is some variation among the different types of fuels, the EPA generally uses 8,887 grams of carbon dioxide per gallon to estimate total emissions. In addition to carbon dioxide, cars also emit smaller amounts of the potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide.

Particulate Matter

Cars emit soot, dust and smoke, also referred to as fine particulate matter. Some of the particulate matter emitted by combustion engines measures around 2.5 micrometers in diameter and particles of this size can lodge deep in the lungs. This type of pollution has been linked to lung cancer, asthma and cardiovascular problems.
From 2000 to 2012, the national average for fine particular matter has decreased by 33 percent, according to EPA statistics. The federal agency relies heavily on state, tribal and local agencies to track national and regional air quality trends. Under the Clean Air Act, each state is responsible for enacting a program to reduce particulate pollution in accordance with national standards.

Sulfur Dioxide

While not a significant source of sulfur dioxide, combustion engines do contribute to the atmospheric concentration of the caustic compound. According to EPA statistics from 2008, "mobile" sources represent about 6.7 percent of total American sulfur-dioxide emissions.
Short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide can result in a range of adverse respiratory effects, such as constriction of the lung's airways and heightened asthma symptoms. Sulfur dioxide can also react to form small particles that can become trapped deep within the lungs and cause conditions such as emphysema and bronchitis.

Air toxins

The combustion engines in cars can also release hazardous chemicals that are considered air toxins. These chemical include benzene, acetaldehyde and 1,3-butadiene. While benzene is a known carcinogen, acetaldehyde and 1,3-butadiene are suspected carcinogens, according to the EPA.
State and federal authorities have taken steps in recent years to require the reformulation of fuels in favor of eliminating these toxins. These steps are expected to reduce motor-vehicle-related air toxins more than 75 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels.

CALL TO ACTION California Transportation Commission (CTC) meeting

From Sylvia Plummer, December 4, 2013

Wednesday, Dec. 11th  1:30 - 5:00pm
Riverside County Administration Building
Supervisors' Chambers
4080 Lemon Street
Riverside, CA

Why is this important?  An update on the SR-710 North Study does appear on the agenda.

This is an important opportunity for the No 710 Action Committee to speak to the Commission about the SR-710 North study.  The next time the CTC is scheduled to meet in our end of the state is in March and that meeting will be held in Orange County.  We do not know at this time if the SR-710 North Study will be included on the agenda at that meeting -- it may depend on whether the EIR/EIS Draft Report has been released by then.

You may remember that Don Voss attempted to attend the meeting in San Diego, but that meeting adjourned early and, unfortunately, Don was not able to speak before the Commission.   This time, the Study is actually on the agenda, making this a not-to-be-missed opportunity. 

Mobility 21 is hosting a  reception (sponsored by CH2MHill, Parsons and other firms) for the Commissioners from 5:30 - 7:30 pm at the Mission Inn.  It does require registration (by this Friday)  and a nominal fee, but might be a great chance to talk one-on-one with Commissioners and wait out the rush-hour traffic while doing so! 
Registration and further information is available at: 

It appears that the Commissioners will be busy with an SR 91 Ground Breaking during the morning and that the actual meeting is scheduled from 1:30 - 5:00 pm.  According to the agenda, public comment takes place at the end of the meeting. 

The agenda may be found here:

Tab 21 under Policy Matters
Update on State Route 710 North Study
by:  Carrie Bowen (District Director, Caltrans District 7) & Doug Failing 
There is a list of reports on individual tabbed items, but I have been unsuccessful at downloading the large Acrobat file for Tab 21.  If I succeed, I will send it to you.  The link to the Tab 21 file is:

According to the website:
"Persons attending the meeting who wish to address the California Transportation Commission on a subject to be considered at this meeting are asked to complete a Speaker Request Card and give it to the Executive Assistant prior to the discussion of the item. If you would like to present handouts/written material to the California Transportation Commission at the meeting, please provide a minimum of 25 copies labeled with the agenda item number."

Please email me if you plan to attend and would like to carpool to the meeting.

If you cannot be there, at least be sure to sign our petition on change.org as soon as possible.  We want to impress the CTC with our strong opposition to the 710 Tunnel Extension.    Go to www.NO710.com to sign the petition.

Crash closes southbound 405 Freeway in Van Nuys


By Samatha Schaefer, December 4, 2013

 All southbound lanes of the 405 Freeway at Sherman Way in Van Nuys were closed Wednesday after a crash involving five cars and a big rig shortly before 9:30 a.m., authorities said. 

The northbound far left and carpool lanes were also closed.

About 40 Los Angeles firefighters responded and had set up a triage area to evaluate crash victims, Fire Department spokesman Shawn Lenske said.

No additional information on the cause of the crash or the nature of the injuries was immediately available.

Los Angeles: Will The City Of The Future Make It There?


By Joel Kotkin, December 3, 2013


GUEST WORDS-When I arrived in Los Angeles almost 40 years ago, there was a palpable sense that here, for better or worse, lay the future of America, and even the world. Los Angeles dominated so many areas — film, international trade, fashion, manufacturing, aerospace — that its ascendency seemed assured. Even in terms of the urban form, LA’s car-dominated, multipolar configuration was being imitated almost everywhere; it was becoming, as one writer noted, “the original in the Xerox” machine. 

Yet today the nation’s second-largest city seems to have fallen off the map of ascendant urban areas. Today’s dynamic cities in terms of job and population growth are the “new Los Angeleses,” such as Houston, Dallas, Phoenix or Charlotte; at the same time LA lags many more traditional “legacy” cities in job creation and growth, notably New York, Boston and Seattle. Worst of all, LA has lost its status as the dominant city on the West Coast; that title, in terms of both economic and political power, has shifted to the tech-heavy Bay Area 

With a weak economy and little media outside Hollywood, the city has lost much of its cachet. A Businessweek survey last year ranked San Francisco as America’s best city to live in. Los Angeles was 50th, behind such unlikely competitors as Cleveland, Omaha, Tulsa, Indianapolis and Phoenix. 
In another survey that purported to identify the top 10 cities for millennials, Seattle ranked first, followed by Houston, Minneapolis, Dallas, Washington, Boston and New York. Neither L.A. nor Orange County made the cut. 

LA’s relative decline reflects a collective inability to readjust to changing economic conditions. Some of this has to do with the end of the Cold War, but also with the loss of the headquarters of many of the area’s top defense contractors, such as Lockheed and, most recently, Northrop Grumman. In 1990, the county had 130,100 aerospace workers. A decade later, that number dropped by more than half to 52,400. By 2010, the county’s aerospace jobs numbered 39,100. 

With the exception of drone technology, the region’s aerospace industry, as one analyst put it, has become “dormant,” a victim of a talent drain and a difficult business environment. This decline has weakened the metro area’s standing as an industrial center — LA has lost almost 20% of its manufacturing jobs since 2007. Meanwhile STEM employment in the Los Angeles-Santa Ana area is still stuck below its 2002 levels; once arguably the world’s largest agglomeration of scientists and engineers, the region has now dipped below the national average in the proportion of STEM jobs in the local economy. 

In contrast to the Bay Area, whose tech community also was largely nurtured by defense contracts and NASA, LA’s defense and aerospace industries never pivoted into the vast civilian market. Capital, too, has played a role. The LA area has lots of rich people, but a relatively weak venture capital community. For example, the Bay Area was a recipient of roughly 45% of U.S. venture capital investment in the third quarter of 2013, while far more populous Los Angeles-Orange County took in under 6.5%. 

The growth of VC-financed companies is one reason why LA has been less able to produce high wage jobs than its northern rival. According to a recent projection by Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., high-wage jobs will account for only 28% of L.A.’s job growth from 2013 through 2017 compared to 45% in the Bay Area. 

Far greater problems can be seen further down the economic food chain. The state’s heavy industry — traditionally the source of higher-paid blue-collar employment — entirely missed the nation’s broad manufacturing resurgence. In the first decade of the 2000s, according to an analysis by the Praxis Strategy Group, LA lagged all but 10 of the nation’s 51 large metro areas in creating manufacturing jobs. 

Two other once-unassailable economic niches in LA, its port and entertainment, also are under assault. The expansion of the Panama Canal has increased the appeal of the Gulf ports, as do plans for expanded port facilities in Baja, California.  These shifts threaten many of the roughly 500,000 generally well-paid blue-collar jobs in the local logistics industry. 

Then there’s the slow but steady erosion of LA’s dominance in its signature industry, entertainment. Motion picture employment is down 11,000 since 2001. In the same period New York has notched modest gains alongside growth in New Orleans and Toronto. New announcements of industry expansions and an uptick in production in LA show that Tinseltown is far from dead, but challenges continue to mount from overseas and domestic competitors. 

Perhaps most shocking has been the tepid response to this relative decline among LA’s business and political leaders. Once local entrepreneurs imagined great things, like massive water and port systems, dominated the race for space and planned out the suburban dreamscapes of Lakewood, Valencia and the Irvine Ranch. 

Arguably the signature achievement of this past decade, and the one getting the most attention in the media, has been the revival of downtown as a residential and cultural hub. Having essentially abandoned the model of a multipolar city, LA has poured billions in infrastructure and subsidies into a half-baked attempt to turn Los Angeles into a faux New York. This is something of a fool’s errand since barely 3% of area residents work downtown, and most cultural consumers live far away on the Westside or in the San Fernando Valley. 

New Mayor Eric Garcetti is also a density advocate, and is placing huge bets on the massive building of high-end high-rise housing, all this despite weak job and population growth. In his campaign he emerged as the candidate of developers who want to densify the city, including Hollywood, over sometimes fierce grassroots opposition. 

Compared to his inept and economically clueless predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, Garcetti represents something of an upgrade. He at least knows jobs matter at least as much as development deals for contributors. Yet he remains pretty much a creature of the failed leadership culture of L.A., which is dominated by public employee unions, subsidy-seeking developers and greens, largely from the city’s affluent Westside. 

Can LA turn itself around? The essential ingredients that drove the city’s ascendency remain: its location on the Pacific, its near-perfect climate and spectacular topography. The key now is for the region to build an economic strategy that allows it to use its assets, and build around its increasingly immigrant-dominated grassroots economy. Innovation in music, fashion and food continue at the grassroots level, with much of the inspiration coming from the city’s increasingly racially diverse mestizo culture. 

What LA needs now is not a slick media campaign, but a concerted effort to tap this neighborhood-centered energy. The city of the future needs to reinvent itself quickly, before it fades further behind its competitors on the coasts and in Texas. Successful cities such as  Boston, San Francisco, Seattle  and Houston all managed to find ways to nurture new industries to supplement their traditional ones. Los Angeles should be able to do the same, but only if it seizes on its fundamental assets can it again become a city with a future.

How to Take a Roundabout in the Dubai Desert

Photo by Peggy Drouet, December 4, 2013

How New York's Toll System Got Completely Busted


By Eric Jaffe, December 3, 2013

 How New York's Toll System Got Completely Busted

On Sunday, tolls at the bridges and tunnels managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey went up again — the third of five scheduled hikes in as many years. The peak E-ZPass fee is now up to $11. A commuter who drives through one of these tolls every work day will fork over nearly $3,000 a year.

Driving in and around New York City is expensive, and it should be. The city has enormous amounts of traffic and a great public transit system. High tolls can help keep a transportation network balanced, efficient, and equitable.

The problem, says finance scholar Jonathan Peters of the College of Staten Island, is that right now New York City tolls accomplish none of these goals. They aren't coordinated to reduce traffic or encourage transit, and they aren't priced to help low-income residents or local businesses. Instead, he says, the tolls pad the pockets of agencies losing money in other areas.

 "You want the network to function as best it can," says Peters. "Tolling is not helping us manage congestion. It's not helping us to be a more livable city. That's the worst part of it."

Peters's calculations show just how outrageous tolling in New York City has become. He combed through public reports of Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and found that, in 2011, the agencies generated $1 billion and $1.5 billion in toll revenue respectively. (In addition to road tolls, Port Authority manages the PATH transit system and the World Trade Center site, and the MTA manages the city's subway system and the Metro North and Long Island Railroad commuter trains.)

Peters compared this $2.5 billion with the latest Federal Highway Administration figures, which put national toll revenue for 2011 at nearly $11.8 billion. That means roughly a fifth of all tolls across the country for that year — 21 percent — were paid in metropolitan New York. When Peters expanded his boundaries to include a 40-mile radius of Manhattan, capturing the New Jersey Turnpike and other tolls, New York became responsible for about a quarter of all U.S. tolls.

"Nobody thinks about it," he says. "It's very problematic, because certain parts of the city are being driven uncompetitive. It's making it harder for people to live."

Striking as those numbers are, the problem really begins with the finer details. For one thing, the toll rates are set far above operating costs. According to Peters's calculations, the MTA made a 76 percent profit on bridges and tunnels in 2011 (with $359 million in costs), while Port Authority turned a 47 percent profit (with $554 million in costs). That smacks of "rent-seeking" on the part of those agencies, says Peters, which lose money on their other ventures and often find themselves in financial trouble.

 Peters is also irked by the fact that Staten Island is hit worse than other parts of the city. The Goethals Bridge and Outerbridge Crossing, which connect Staten Island to New Jersey, each made a 65 percent profit for Port Authority in 2011. Meanwhile, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which links Staten Island to Brooklyn, made a 76 percent profit for the MTA. Altogether, Staten Island bridge tolls generated $600 million in 2011 — 5 percent of the U.S. total for a single county.

That situation is "patently unfair," says Peters, because the tolling authorities that benefit from this revenue don't provide Staten Island with any transit alternatives in these corridors. There are no free bridges or commuter trains connecting the borough to other parts of the city. In a sense, says Peters, Staten Island drivers are forced to subsidize the costs of transporting people on other parts of the MTA and Port Authority systems.

"Is it a user fee or is it a tax? That's the big question that floats around," he says. "My argument is, in New York City, these are clearly taxes. I don't have any alternative routes, and price is way above the cost of providing the service."

That burden falls heaviest on low-income residents and small businesses. On the Verrazano Bridge, for instance, about 14 percent of tolls are paid by bridge users making less than $30,000 a year. By contrast, in the Midtown Queens Tunnel, only 7 percent of toll-payers fall into that income bracket. Peters believes that's because drivers have free or cheaper options in midtown, whereas the Verrazano is a "monopoly" toll corridor.

In a larger sense, the toll problems affect all New Yorkers by failing to distribute traffic across the transportation network. Peters offers a simple example from his own travels: cars routinely jam up the free Brooklyn Bridge instead of using the tolled Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The very existence of free bridges onto Manhattan along strong transit corridors encourages people onto the roads.

Others have recognized the need for improvement. Local transport guru "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz has pushed for an equitable tolling plan: charge tolls on all city bridges and adjust rates across the system based on traffic flow. Peters says he'd begin by bringing tolls closer to costs and pushing transit agencies to find more sustainable funding mechanisms over the long term. At the very least, he says, there should be a broader tolling plan in place.

"You want to think and coordinate this, and right now it's not," says Peters. "It's run by these agencies without a clear regional objective. That's the real tragedy."

The Genius Ways Beijing Drivers Get Around the City's License Plate Lottery


By Lily Kuo and Gang Yang, December 4, 2013

 The Genius Ways Beijing Drivers Get Around the City's License Plate Lottery

It just got even harder for car owners in Beijing to get a coveted license plate, a necessary commodity for the city of 13 million's 7.5 million drivers.

Since 2011, the plates have been awarded in a lottery system that people joke is more difficult to win than the country's actual lottery. It was put in place as cars poured on to Beijing's roads, causing traffic jams and choking fumes—they more than doubled (link in Chinese) in 10 years, to 5.2 million in 2012. Last month, Beijing announced it would make things even tougher, by cutting the number of new license plates it issues to drivers by over a third to further battle congestion and pollution. 

Starting next year officials will make things tougher still, by holding the lottery drawing every other month instead of every month, the city's transportation bureau said on Nov. 28 (link in Chinese).
That may explain why a post from a city resident was so widely-shared in the Chinese social media sphere this week that it was reported on by national media. The blogger wrote:
I met this 'taxi driver' this morning. He's a Beijing native and a white-collar worker. He plans to buy a car, but has never won the goddamn license plate lottery. So he came up with this genius strategy: pay a taxicab company a monthly deposit of 4700 yuan [$800] so that he gets a cab to drive. Besides, he picks up a couple of patrons on his way to office, which earns him an extra 120 yuan per day. Isn't that awesome?
Officials say the story is fake and that getting permission to drive a cab in Beijing is even more difficult than winning the license plate lottery. But the idea behind the post, as well as its popularity, demonstrates the frustration that many Beijing residents have towards the driving restrictions and the creative ways they use to get around them. Moonlighting as a cab driver might be an unrealistic strategy, but Beijingers have resorted to various smart, yet somewhat shady schemes to game the lottery system. Here are a few: 

Get a license plate from a neighboring province

Drivers in Beijing who spend an extra 1,500 yuan ($250) can obtain a license plate from the city of Zhuozhou (link in Chinese) in Hebei province, about an hour’s drive from Beijing. The downside of this is that those with Hebei plates have to stay off central Beijing roads during peak hours of the day, when they are reserved for only cars registered in Beijing.

Rent a license plate

Some car owners in Beijing choose to rent license plates from car dealerships and residents who managed to collect extra plates before the city began the lottery system in 2011. Drivers pay a monthly price of about 1,500 yuan. In August, a woman from Tianjin was found to be renting more than a thousand plates to city residents. Beijing police have since confiscated all of them.

Buy a used car that comes with a "car carrier"

Several Beijing car dealers sell not only used cars but, for a 30 percent markup on the price of the car, the right to use the former car owner’s license plate. This is called finding a beiche, literally a "car carrier." The danger with this scheme is that car plates are not legally transferable, so the car remains registered under the name of the former owner. Therefore, the chances of getting caught in the event of a car accident or traffic violation are pretty high.

Metro Board to consider motions involving restrooms, parking and paying fares at transit stations


By Steve Hymon, December 3, 2013

Go to the website for two downloads.

Motions involving bathrooms at transit stations (or lack thereof), parking at transit stations (or lack thereof) and fares on the Orange Line (or lack of people actually paying for them) have all found their way onto the agenda for the Metro Board of Directors meeting this Thursday.

In particular, the bathroom and parking issues are brought up on a regular basis by readers here and, quite frankly, are also core service issues that most large transit agencies grapple with at some time or another.

Let me be blunt. None of these issues are going to be solved at this Board meeting. As you will see below, each motions call for more study and/or reports from Metro staff. That said, motions are sometimes the beginning of a process.

Obviously the motion is keyed to some specific issues that have arisen near the Orange Line’s Pierce College station. But bathrooms and transit stations have a long, tangled history that is still, of course, being written.

Bathrooms at transit stations are in many cities a thing of the past, mostly for reasons involving maintenance and safety, although some BART and New York Subway stations have restrooms. Here’s an excerpt from a 2010 amNewYork story on bathrooms in the subway system:
Of the open bathrooms, a third were frightening caverns of garbage, urine, standing water or unseemly smells. Odors from the Astoria-Ditmars Blvd. station on the N caused an amNewYork reporter to feel faint during a recent visit.

“They’re pretty disgusting. People are always cleaning themselves in there and doing other stuff,” said Kelvin Pau, 27, a rider using the 168 St. A station, which reeked.
Don’t expect to find toilet paper or soap, as few of the bathrooms had either. And while graffiti has largely been eliminated from subway stations, it lives on in the bathrooms, as many of the walls and stalls were covered in tags.

Keeping the bathrooms tidy and open is a challenge because they are constantly being vandalized or attract “criminal activity,” Seaton said.

Metro has three transit stations with restrooms: Union Station, El Monte Station and Harbor Gateway. The vast majority do not.
Restrooms in transit stations is a subject that has been written about a lot. Here’s a good article about the issue from the Atlantic Cities blog. It will be interesting to see how Metro staff responds to this one, as building more restrooms and then maintaining and patrolling them would be a major undertaking.

Volvo Is About to Unleash 100 Robo-Cars in Sweden


By Damon Lavrinc, December 3, 2013


See the website for more photos and for a video.

Volvo is bring its robo-car army to its home country of Sweden, with 100 autonomous vehicles taking to the roads of Gothenburg in the next three years.

In a move that one-ups Nissan’s promise to bring autonomous vehicles to market by the end of the decade, Volvo says it believes that “that no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by 2020.”

Google is still leading the way in the autonomous vehicle space, with dozens of self-driving cars having racked up over 300,000 miles in the past two years. Automakers are scrambling to catch up, with Nissan’s commitment to bring the first electric, self-driving car to market in 2020, while Ford, General Motors, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW are working on their own semi- and fully-autonomous systems. But Volvo’s plan is the most aggressive yet — at least from a company that isn’t also putting computers on our faces.

The program is called “Drive Me”, and in collaboration with the Swedish Transport Administration, the Swedish Transport Agency, and the Lindholmen Science Park, Volvo will put 100 autonomous cars onto the roads of Gothenburg in 2017.

“Autonomous vehicles are an integrated part of Volvo Cars’ as well as the Swedish government’s vision of zero traffic fatalities,” says Volvo president and CEO Håkan Samuelsson. “It will give us an insight into the technological challenges at the same time as we get valuable feedback from real customers driving on public roads.”

Those real customers will be selected next year during a research program, with 100 drivers hand-picked to participate in the autonomous vehicle trials. The initial round of testing will take place on over 30 miles of public roads, with a mix of commuter arteries, congested city centers, and freeways.

Volvo is out to see exactly how autonomous vehicles will boost traffic and fuel efficiency, determine what additional infrastructure will be required for a larger self-driving car rollout, and how both the 100 driver/riders and surrounding motorists interact with the vehicles.

Drive Me is just the latest self-driving program Volvo has worked on over the past few years, including successful testing of its SARTRE road trains that use a big rig with a driver and a brace of on-board gear to control a platoon of networked vehicles behind it.

In the meantime, Volvo is promising to offer a semi-autonomous driving mode on the 2014 XC90, which — like the system already available on the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class — would combine adaptive cruise control with a system that keeps the vehicle centered in the lane at low speeds.