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

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Future of Transportation Is Not All Flying Cars

What we've learned from our 9-month series on tomorrow's urban mobility.


By Eric Jaffe, October 10, 2014

We've had the future of transportation wrong since the final scene of Back to the Future. When Doc Brown tells Marty that "where we're going, we don't need roads," then lifts the DeLorean right off the ground, we all took him to mean the next big thing in mobility was the flying car. Well it's October 10, 2014, just a year and a couple weeks shy of the futuristic date Doc punched into the dashboard, and delivery drones aside, we don't really have flying cars. (Though wouldn't you know, we might be getting automatic shoelaces.)

But if we'd taken Doc's words a bit more metaphorically, we might have been right all along. American cities have started a gigantic pivot away from complete car-reliance toward multi-modal transportation systems that balance the needs of drivers alongside those of bus and train riders, pedestrians, cyclists, and taxi users. Instead of only a car key in our pocket or purse we have a metro card and a bike-share fob and a smartphone with an e-hail app. We're going to need roads where we're going, but we don't need just roads, and we don't need to use them the way we use them now.

 That's the clearest lesson to emerge from our Future of Transportation series, which began nine months ago and wraps up today, some 85 stories later. Writers reported from pretty much every big city across the country: from Boston down to Miami in the east, Minneapolis to Chicago in the Midwest, New Orleans and Houston in the South, Salt Lake City and Denver in the mountains, and Seattle to Los Angeles in the west. Meantime, experts and planners and officials shared their thoughts and local lessons that can apply to cities of all shapes and sizes. In both a physical and intellectual sense, we covered a lot of ground.

Much of that travel came by modes other than automobiles. The trends in public transportation range from mobile ticketing to all-day service demand to quicker project completion to fully automated systems. The related rise in transit-oriented development is both promising from a mobility standpoint and potentially troubling from an equity one. Bus-rapid transit and light rail will both play big roles in our multi-modal future, and if they're designed right, streetcars can, too. High-speed passenger rail—some of it privately funded—has been slow going for now but remains potentially transformative. Bike-share has arrived in a major way, and electric bikes may soon follow. Even the oldest form of human transportation will also get a fresh start with new sidewalk and shoe technology (power laces notwithstanding).

Reader interest further confirms the crush on alternative modes. Some of the most-shared articles in the series—at least to date—touch on Portland's new multi-modal bridge that bans cars, Denver's multi-billion-dollar push to become the leading transit city in the West, how to make cycling more popular among low-income city residents, and whether the best way to end drunk driving would be to end driving altogether. Judging by reader comments, the pieces that sparked the most discussion include Nate Berg's adventures in a Tesla electric vehicle; Yonah Freemark's analyses of light rail systems and the federal government's failed high-speed rail plan; and Emily Badger's clear case for raising the cost of driving. Jeff Speck's triumphant look at why urban roads should be 10-feet wide instead of 12 is hot on these heels despite coming late to the game.

This interest in alternative modes doesn't deny that highways and cars will still play a dominant role in the future of city mobility. But the edges of that domination are inching inward. Some cities are pushing against increasing traffic congestion with new forms of road pricing. Others are attacking the problem with wholesale shifts in land use and grand new plans for densification. Parking will become greener, odd as that sounds, and potentially less plentiful. Roads and traffic lights alike will become more intelligent. Most urban interstates are here to stay, but some will be torn down in an effort to return cities to the people. Those Millennials that do eventually buy cars may be able to snap a dashboard selfie to celebrate the occasion.

The biggest wild card in tomorrow's transportation, of course, are driverless cars. They're pretty much here—we learned that much up close when we got the first live look at how Google's autonomous car is learning to navigate city streets. Cities and states are already preparing for the not-so-distant day when these cars will hit the market and the roads. But enormous questions remain about the ultimate impact they'll have on urban mobility. In the brightest scenario, driverless technology combines with smartphone-based, on-demand taxi service to all but eliminate car-ownership within the city and complement transit access in the suburbs. In the dimmest, the ceaseless flow of driverless traffic might grind our streets to a halt, and we'll be wishing for flying cars after all.

So thanks again to those of you who joined us on this trip, and our deep appreciation also goes out once more to The Rockefeller Foundation for its support for the series. Those of you who enjoyed the Future of Transportation can look forward to an e-book we're compiling of the best stories, which we'll make available to readers in the coming months. And rest assured our regular CityLab coverage will extend and expand the themes we hit on here. The journey continues.

Thoughts at a Workshop On Replacing CA’s Gas Tax With a Mileage Fee


By Joe Linton, October 9, 2014


 In 2017, California plans to pilot a new mileage-based Road User Charge designed to potentially replace the current state gas tax.

Earlier this week, I attended a California Sustainable Transportation Funding Workshop, hosted by Caltrans, Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), the California Transportation Commission (CTC), and the Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance (MBUFA). The half-day program focused on how the state of California could shift from our current gas tax funding stream to one based on a per-mile fee.

Let me first say that I usually mostly hang out with a bunch of left-of-center city people like me; we get around mostly by bicycling and walking. My friends and colleagues tend to support the idea of a per-mile fee, because we expect that it could help motivate people to drive less, and use other modes more.

This workshop wasn’t populated by a bunch of people like me. I don’t think anyone else arrived there by bicycle. As far as I could tell, it was primarily people who are more mainstream: people who drive and who, for the foreseeable future, expect our car-centric transportation system to look more or less like it does now. Among the program’s sponsors was the libertarian Reason Foundation.

What was interesting about the workshop was where the left and the right agreed: gas tax revenues aren’t enough to cover transportation infrastructure costs, and per-mile fees could work better. Similar right-left agreements occur with some Shoup-inspired parking reforms and Express Lane toll programs.

California's Gas Tax
In 1994, California’s Gas Tax was set at 18 cents per gallon. It remains unchanged today, but, due to inflation, that 18 cents is now worth about 11 cents. Graph via Caltrans

Speakers at the conference set the stage by describing the situation, which they described as “The Federal & California Financial Cliff.” The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. The California gas tax is an additional 18 cents per gallon. These amounts were set in the early 1990s. Unlike percentage-based sales taxes, which fluctuate with price changes, the gas tax remains at a flat rate. Since the ’90s, inflation has effectively reduced California’s gas tax to its lowest inflation-adjusted level since California gas taxes began in 1923.

Gas taxes are dedicated to be spent on transportation only. As the gas taxes lose value over time, governmental transportation budgets are increasingly subsidized by other taxes paid by everyone, including sales taxes, property taxes, etc. Recent estimates show that only about half of overall transportation funding is paid for by dedicated gas tax revenues. To some extent, this is fair: even non-drivers derive some benefits from highways, because everyone buys goods shipped by truck. The unfair aspect of this system is that non-drivers’ taxes go, in part, to freeways that non-drivers do not use.

Transportation leaders are generally aware that general funds subsidize transportation expenditures, but many drivers assume that driving-based taxes are what pays for roads. Many drivers, though already subsidized by non-drivers, still think they’re paying too much.

There are at least three more factors that influence the gas-tax-income vs. transportation-expenditures mismatch.

Gas tax revenue fails to keep pace with vehicle miles traveled. Caltrans’ chart illustrates that link well, but ignores recent trends in declining VMT. Graph via Caltrans

One factor was what conference presenters called the “problem” of increasing fuel efficiency. Due to legislative mandates and market forces, cars get more miles per gallon today than before. Fuel efficiency is good for drivers’ wallets and reduces the harm that driving does to the environment, but it means people pay less in gas taxes. At the workshop, California Transportation Commission Vice Chair Lucy Dunn criticized hybrid and electric vehicle drivers for not paying their fair share and burdening taxpayers.

Here are two more exacerbating factors that were not mentioned at the workshop:
  • Nobody mentioned recent declines in vehicle miles traveled (VMT.) The Reason Foundation’s Adrian Moore actually promoted mileage-based fees in part because they will “grow along with VMT.” Nationally and in California, per-person VMT has declined since 2004. This is throwing off traffic predictions, resulting in even less gas tax revenue than agencies anticipated. It has resulted in declining toll revenues and toll authority bankruptcy.
  • As Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns has emphasized, transportation infrastructure maintenance costs are gradually increasing. It seemed like a good investment for states and cities to build all kinds of big highways and roads with “free” federal monies. But, as infrastructure ages, maintenance costs come due.
So, as costs grow and dedicated income shrinks, the need for other revenue increases. This can mean drawn-out political battles. With limited government dollars, Mr. and Ms. Public, what would you rather fund: More roads? More police? More education? More parks?

Transportation agencies enjoyed more than half a century of relatively flush and entirely dedicated budgets. Now they’re facing competition, with shifting political winds often meaning leaner budgets. This uncertainty makes planning and financing more difficult, and destabilizes not only agencies, but also the private industries that count on governmental contracts.

What’s in the future? The folks assembled at the workshop, and many others, think it is Mileage Based User Fees (MBUFs.)

MBUF is also called VMT fee, VMT tax, or a per-mile charge. 

Generally, this would work by charging drivers some amount of money for every mile they drive. In the initial switch-over from gas taxes, this could be done in a revenue-neutral way. As of July 2015, Oregon will start a permanent program wherein some drivers will voluntarily switch from paying the state gas tax to paying a 1.5 cents per-mile charge. This amount corresponds to Oregon’s average gas tax per mile driven.

Being revenue-neutral, this would not, on its own, solve the budgetary shortfall. It could, perhaps, stop the hemorrhaging – meaning that mileage fee revenues would not decline quite as dramatically as the gas tax revenue has been declining. Mileage fees bring fuel-efficient vehicles back into full-paying mode. To fully stop the hemorrhaging, though, the new MBUF would need to be indexed to inflation, in which case it would only be revenue-neutral on day one.

California is moving forward with a per-mile fee pilot. The legislature and governor recently approved S.B. 1077, which authorizes a “Road User Charge” program as an alternative to California’s gas tax. Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission are currently assembling a technical committee to direct the implementation process. The pilot program is scheduled to begin operation in January 2017.

Will a mileage fee make a big difference?

Many of the workshop speakers, who seem invested in retaining current car-centric systems, seem convinced that MBUFs are key to continuing the status quo.

Many of my livability-seeking friends think MBUFs would help a shift toward livability.

The truth is likely in the middle somewhere, and the devils will be in the details. It is also possible that any effects MBUFs cause could be overwhelmed by other forces. Mileage fees could be outweighed by increasing gas prices, declining VMT, millennials’ behavior, technological advances, mode shift trends, global warming, or other unforeseen circumstances.

Though workshop speakers seemed very confident that MBUFs will take hold in California and will someday replace our broken gas tax, the future of MBUFs past the 2017 pilot is unclear.

Metro Fare Jumpers Explain Why and How They Evade Tickets in L.A. (VIDEO)


By Michael Linder, October 8, 2014

(See website for the video.)

How many riders jump Metro’s turnstiles? Have L.A.’s poor been nudged into misdemeanor law-breaking, risking $75 fines, because of recently hiked fares? Metro believes that 8 percent of riders, or one in 12 people, evade fares. But that's if you believe a nearly decade-old study.

L.A. is a highly creative town. Some people do simply leap the gates. But other rogue riders glide through "TAP" validation points without a TAP (Transit Access Pass) card, or their card has been drained of its balance – an “abusive TAP” in Metrospeak. Some riders squeeze through turnstiles as a congealed uni-group, or slide through wheelchair gates behind disabled patrons. Some young people quietly pay for only a senior fare.

Metro says each ride brings in just 70 cents due to legal discounts for students, seniors and others. The true cost of fare evasion can't be known, Metro says, until all 80 light-rail and subway stations have been latched with single-entry turnstiles — at a cost of $1 million for each of 40 stations still lacking the gates. In weighing a system-wide latch-down, says Metro spokesman Paul Gonzales, the question is “how many millions must be spent to chase 70 cents?”

Elegant Metro headquarters, whose lobby decor cost more than the average rider's annual salary. - MICHAEL LINDER 
Elegant Metro headquarters, whose lobby decor cost more than the average rider's annual salary.

But chasing that 70 cents is underway in earnest, according to lopsided data released by Metro to L.A. Weekly under a Public Records Act request. In 2013, 89,535 citations were issued as L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies and Metro security forces got much more aggressive, papering wayward riders with 35.5 percent more citations than in 2012.

Transit rights activist Tekoah Flory claims Sheriff's deputies are far more aggressive in challenging poor, black and brown riders than white riders. Black male riders are six times more likely to be cited for fare evasion, she says. Her group's study of 136,000 citations issued to youth indicates 26 percent were black and some 30 percent Latino.

Transit activist Tekoah Flory. - MICHAEL LINDER 
Transit activist Tekoah Flory. 
The Metro data released to the Weekly shows a huge concentration in citations among 19-to-29 year-olds, with $75 tickets issued three times more often to males than females. The most-fined riders are those unfortunates riding the Blue or Red line.

Metro’s studies of select light-rail stations where latching turnstiles were installed in recent years show that the number of people who pass through the locked stations fell, while revenues increased.

Then in July, a Los Angeles Times report revealed a very large gap between Metro's widely-touted ridership estimates and the number of tickets Metro is actually selling. The gap suggests not only fare evasion but possibly widespread accidental failure by riders to properly swipe their TAP card, perhaps some malfunctioning equipment  — perhaps even some ridership estimate quirks.

But Metro is highly critical of the Times' eyebrow-raising article, saying the newspaper merely applied simple arithmetic to outdated passenger stats, and that Metro had warned the paper that the data was flawed and no longer in use.

The truth is, Metro is in the dark.

“We know it occurs, but we don’t have a good method for determining how widespread the problem is," says Gonzales of the fare-evasion crowd, “and it’s impossible to employ the number of personnel required to eliminate 100 percent of fare evasion.”

“Stations are not designed to keep people out,” says Gonzales, “they’re designed to get people through the system.”

Among other citation-issuing techniques, security personnel use smart phones to check a rider's TAP card for its payment history. Not enough cash on the card to have paid for the ride? A citation ensues.

According to activist Flory, kids who don't know their constitutional rights too easily give in to deputies’ cheerful requests for a pat-down. Yet a marker stuck in someone’s pants pocket may lead to vandalism accusations – and lighters or other objects may boost a $75 fine to $250, she says.

Veterans, meanwhile, though entitled to disabled-rider fees, are sometimes ticketed for not carrying a Veterans Administration photo ID. But it can take the federal agency months to issue that ID.

Citations may be contested before a clerk at Metro Transit Court in the agency’s gleaming Gateway Plaza headquarters.

Fare jumpers who qualify can get their $75 ticket reduced to $60 by watching a video and passing a three-part test at Metro’s Traffic School.

It hardly seems worth the $15 rebate, but for many among the poor and working-class, that's a decent chunk of money.

School Board Rails Against Subway Criticism

Sent via email from the Beverly Hills Courier, October 10, 2014