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, January 30, 2015

Pasadena mayoral candidates discuss Rose Bowl events, embezzlement at forum


No Contest: Taipei MRT Vs. Los Angeles Metro


By Benjamin Dunn, January 27, 2015

 Passengers leave trains at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Station on New Year's Eve. (Benjamin Dunn/Neon Tommy).
 Passengers leave trains at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Station on New Year's Eve.

Ever since I started writing about urban transportation systems, I’ve heard about how East Asia is one of the world's leaders in creating efficient and effective public transit. Sure enough, this past winter, I took a trip to Taiwan to visit my relatives and I was blown away by how effective it is there.

While I’ve only been exposed to American transit systems all my life, I’ve already come up with a huge list of problems I have with public transportation, particularly with Los Angeles County’s Metro System. I mean, when it’s forecasted to take 20 years to extend the Purple Line a mere eight miles and Beijing was able to add 235 miles of track in just seven years (that’s more track than the entire New York City subway), it seems comical that local leaders were so excited during the Purple Line Groundbreaking late last year.

A GIF with the history of the Beijing Subway. Pay attention to the rapid expansion during 2007- (Hat600/Wikimedia Commons)
A GIF with the history of the Beijing Subway. Pay attention to the rapid expansion during 2007- 
It may not be a fair comparison to make, due to cultural and legal differences between the two countries. Ridership numbers are also completely different, as Taipei handles around 1,656,700 daily while Los Angeles deals with 308,011. But it does make you question what the people at Metro HQ are doing - since they are funded by state taxpayers - and if they're actually using our money effectively. But Taipei's MRT system is a glimpse of what’s possible in Los Angeles: effective, efficient and reliable transportation that that can reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality in one of the most car-clogged cities in America. Why can't we adopt some of the Taiwanese practices and implement them in Los Angeles?

Here’s just a few observations I made during my stay in Taipei.

Note: These are just observations based on my own personal experiences. Your own observations may be different. Also, I’m a Taiwanese-American and a public transportation advocate. 


Taipei’s MRT has platform screen doors at most stations. These are basically panels that only slide open once the train has arrived and opened its own doors. When the train leaves, the doors close to prevent anyone from falling into the tracks, whether accidentally or intentionally. Lights on top of the gates also flash when trains approach and depart, and a loud warning tone is also played from speakers above.

Here's an example of a train arriving at Taipei Main Station. The warning sound at 00:14 is for the train on the other side of the platform. Notice how people follow the painted signs on the ground telling them where to stand and how door closing announcements are made in four different languages at 00:42.


Some may worry that if there’s an emergency, it would be impossible to get everyone off a train since the doors are designed to open only if the train has stopped at the right spot. But the walls in between the doors all have emergency release handles on the train side so passengers can get out.

These gates are absent in Los Angeles and throughout transportation systems throughout the the United States. Why? Officials say it’s because these doors are too expensive to build. And these wouldn't be too useful since Metro officials decided to build sections of the Expo, Gold and Blue Lines at street level, so anyone can walk onto the tracks. That's why the Blue line is one of the deadliest light rail lines in the nation, where over 120 people have died in the past two decades.

But honestly, even putting a worker out on the platforms to watch over everyone could decrease the number of deaths or incidents per year.

During rush hour in Taipei, there are security guards are both sides of the platform to make sure trains run smoothly and immediately report any issues that may arise. So if someone does fall in, they can immediately alert MRT operators and stop trains to prevent deaths on the tracks.


Time tables outside the gates at Shipai station. (Benjamin Dunn/Neon Tommy)
Time tables outside the gates at Shipai station.
This may primarily be a cultural difference but there are some design choices that MRT planners in Taiwan have made that prevent dirtiness throughout the system.

You know that lovely stench that hangs around busses and trains in the United States? Yeah, that doesn’t exist in Taiwan because they use plastic seats and flooring, instead of trying to make the seats more comfortable with thin cushioning. Accidentally spill your coffee on the train? No problem, it won’t seep into the seat and become impossible to clean out.

Sure, you could say they're not as comfortable. But honestly, the cushioning hardly does anything and what’s the point of public transportation, comfort or getting people around?

Remember those platform screens I talked about earlier? They also help prevent trash and dirt from getting sucked in and out of the tunnels as trains come and go so platforms are considerably cleaner as well.

As with Los Angeles Metro, it’s illegal to eat or drink on Taipei’s metro system. And while I never saw any police officers or Metro officials checking in on the trains, it’s socially unacceptable to eat on the train. Basically, everyone will stare at you and give you disgusting looks if you do, according to my friends who have accidentally done so. It’s a sort of self-enforcement, so to say, and something that’s mostly due to cultural differences between the two nations.

Train Design:

A man waits on the Taipei MRT during New Year's Eve. (Benjamin Dunn/Neon Tommy)
A man waits on the Taipei MRT during New Year's Eve.
Train doors have four doors on each side instead of the typical two in American systems. This means it's easier and faster to get on and off trains at platforms and in emergency situations as well.

Most seats also face toward the aisle so you don't have to climb over someone to get out. This design also allows for wider aisles and thus, more standing room for passengers during peak hours. Sure, you have fewer seats but remember, this is a mass transit system designed to move tens of thousands of people around per day. Would you rather miss a train because it’s too full or get a place to stand on the train?

It’s also possible to travel the entire length of the train without having to open a single door. No only does it make it easier to travel from car to car, but it also decreases congestion in each car as riders can easily move from a heavily congested car to one with more room.

Ground to ceiling support beams split into three different poles so there’s more things to hang onto when the train is travelling. There are also never-ending lines of handholds around an inch away from each other hanging from horizontal support beams.

You'll always know which station is next in Taipei's MRT system. The displays alternate between Chinese and English displays. (Benjamin Dunn/Neon Tommy)
You'll always know which station is next in Taipei's MRT system. The displays alternate between Chinese and English displays. 
One of my pet peeves with the Los Angeles light rail is that there is absolutely no internal display that tells you what the next stop actually is. Sure, the train operators announce it on loudspeaker. But trains are loud, especially through tunnels and it’s often difficult to hear the announcement.

You’ll never have that problem in Taipei. First of all, there’s a display above each door that tells you which station you just left, the next station and the station after that. So you’ll know two stations in advance when to prepare to get off. The display also has an arrow for direction of travel that corresponds with a map above.

Instead of having a train operator make the announcements for each station, destinations are made by a relatively loud recording in case train operators speak too softly (I can’t even remember how many times train operators are so soft I can’t understand anything they’re saying). They’re also made in four different languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka and English.

Line Layout:

Taipei on the left, Los Angeles on the right.
Taipei on the left, Los Angeles on the right.
This is difficult to compare. One of the struggles with creating a transit system for Los Angeles County is the fact that it’s so massive that it’s hard to cover every part of the region. But let’s take a look at how lines are laid out in the two systems.

In Los Angeles, most of the lines converge downtown, whether at 7th Street/Metro Center or Union Station. This means if you’re trying to get from say, LAX/Aviation Station to Culver City Station, you would have to take the Green Line to the Blue Line into downtown, transfer onto an Expo Line train and then wait until you get to the end of the line. This trip would take around an hour and a half, according to Google. And the two stations are only around seven miles apart. Why does it take so long? By putting most transfer stations in Downtown, a lot of time is wasted headed east or west toward them if you’re just trying to travel north or south.

Taipei on the other hand, has so many lines intersecting one another that transfer stations are scattered throughout the city. So there’s less time wasted traveling toward a transfer station instead of to your actual destination.

Each line also runs on its own tracks instead of sharing them with other lines. As a result, there are more trains running in each line and thus, less congestion on each platform and shorter wait times for each train. So if you miss a train in Taiwan, it’s not a huge issue since there will be another one arriving within two to five minutes. But if you miss a train in Los Angeles, it’s not uncommon to have to wait more than 10-15 minutes for the next one to come.

Station Design:

Some of the services offered at most stations in Taipei. (Benjamin Dunn/Neon Tommy)
Some of the services offered at most stations in Taipei.
Most stations have a little snack bar or two outside the station gates where you can grab a small meal once you leave the station. Very convenient for someone who’s just gotten off of work or a student coming back from school and wants something like a red bean cake to munch on.

Some stations are also integrated directly into shopping centers, tourist destinations or restaurant areas. Take Taipei Main Station for example. You can transfer to another line there, get on the high-speed rail, transfer onto bus lines, go shopping in the underground malls or a Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store across the street, or grab a meal at one of the restaurants on the second floor. Basically, stations aren't simply just something you pass through on your journeys. They're well lit, clean, inviting and promote not only the Metro system itself but also the community around it.

The stations and systems as a whole are also very friendly for non-Mandarin speakers. All signs are in Traditional Chinese, of course, but also have English directly underneath. And there’s so many signs everywhere that clearly direct you towards exits, restrooms and other parts of the station that it’s really hard to get lost.

An example of an underground mall connected to Taipei Main Station. (Benjamin Dunn/Neon Tommy)
An example of an underground mall connected to Taipei Main Station. 
Each station entrance is also numbered, which makes it easier to identify which ones to use when you’re entering and exiting the station. And there are display boards that display when trains are enterting and leaving the station outside the station gates so you know if you have to scramble for your train or not.

Ticketing and fare collection is just so much easier as well. Instead of forcing everyone to buy something like a TAP card that you might forget at home or not know how much value you have, you purchase a little one-use token that you scan to enter the gates and deposit in a slot to exit. And when you do buy the tokens, the ticketing machines have a map with how much it costs to travel to each station so you don’t have to spend time calculating how much you’ll have to spend on each trip.

This video shows the token system in Kaohsiung, a major port city in the south of Taiwan. Taipei follows a similar system.


Alternatively, there is the EasyCard for more frequent riders, which is basically a better TAP card that works with Metro and bus systems in Taipei, along with many more around the country. You can buy them at any station or convenience store like 7-11 and refill them there as well.


A train arrives at Shipai station in Taipei's MRT system. (Benjamin Dunn/Neon Tommy).
A train arrives at Shipai station in Taipei's MRT system. 
While comparing the two systems definitely isn’t fair, looking at the two side by side does reveal a lot of the shortfalls that Los Angeles Metro currently faces. And Taipei affords a look into how a transportation system should really run. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the fact that Los Angeles Metro attempts to tackle the transportation needs of multiple cities within Los Angeles County whereas Taipei MRT just needs to deal with Taipei City itself, which is a smaller and denser area.

Taipei MRT is also run by the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation, a private company, while Los Angeles Metro is run by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a public company that also oversees bus and other transportation operations in the region. So TRTC can focus on just perfecting its metro system in Taipei while LACMTA has to focus on multiple systems across a massive land area and through multiple cities, which has stirred up quite a bit of controversy before.

There’s also a huge cultural difference between Taipei and Los Angeles. If Taipei’s complex and innovative system was implemented in Los Angeles, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see rampant vandalism throughout the system. It already happens on basically every train and station - imagine what would happen if vandals had new things to break and destroy. Would it be cost effective in this case? And in Taipei, people don’t see public transportation as a nuisance. The car isn’t king and people actually understand that not every single one of them can drive a car every day and actually get around efficiently. Even the mayor of Taipei takes the MRT to work instead of the typical limo that politicians are so fond of. People don't play annoying music or talk loudly on the trains, making the overall experience onboard much more peaceful than how it is in Los Angeles. I feel like this is because in Taiwan, there's more of a focus on maintaining societal order and doing what's best for society over pursuing individual endeavors. At least, that's what I've noticed during my upbringing in a Taiwanese family.

There’s a near limitless list of conditions to consider but I’ll leave you with these for now. 

Upcoming CCA summit: future of DTLA growth and transit


By Steve Hymon, January 29, 2015

The Central City Association — which represents downtown Los Angeles businesses — is holding a half-day summit on Feb. 19 about growth in DTLA and the future of transit. The flier is below; you can register to attend here (it’s $125 for those who aren’t CCA members). Metro CEO Art Leahy and Metro Board Chair Eric Garcetti are both on the docket to speak.

It should be an interesting topic, given that DTLA is already the hub of the regional transit system with more projects on the way. The Regional Connector to link the Blue, Expo and Gold Lines is under construction, as are both the second phase of the Expo Line and the Purple Line Extension, both of which will link DTLA to Westside jobs and residents.


Actions taken today by the Metro Board of Directors


By Steve Hymon, January 29, 2015

The Metro Board of Directors held their January meeting this morning. It wasn’t a very busy agenda but some of the actions taken included:

•Item 72. The Board approved a 12-month pilot program with Google to place advertising on the Metro.net website while also asking staff to study issuing a request-for-proposals for a longer-term contract. The ads are expected to generate about $350,000 in revenue to Metro during the pilot period with no cost to Metro. Ads must adhere to Metro standards and will mostly appear in sidebars of web pages or at the bottom of the page (no pop ups). The ads are expected to appear on the website within 30 days. Metro staff report

•Item 79. The Board voted 7 to 5 to approve a one-year contract extension option with Outfront Media (formerly CBS Outdoors) to place advertising on Metro buses, trains and facilities as offered in a substitute motion by Board Member Michael D. Antonovich. The approval canceled consideration of the original motion to instead issue a new RFP for an advertising contract.

In a presentation, Outfront Media showed some ways that up to $1 million in additional annual ad revenue could be raised, including placing ads on the front of buses, putting more posters in rail stations, adding digital signage to rail stations, expanded coverage of bus and train windows with ads, selling line and station naming rights and putting ‘media streamers’ in trains (i.e. video monitors).

During the discussion, Board Chair Eric Garcetti said some of those ideas may be considered but he had concerns about some of them — specifically mentioning that certain type of ads (such as those promoting alcohol) should not be on the Metro system.

•Item 77. The Board approved a resolution supporting a bid for Los Angeles County to host the World Fair from 2022 to 2024. Resolution

•Item 54. The Board approved an $8.2-million contract increase to replace five of the nine escalators at the Red/Purple Line Pershing Square Station and bring them up to the new standards of the American Public Transit Assn. Staff report

•Item 22. The Board approved revising a joint development agreement with MacArthur Park Metro, LLC, which is trying to build 81 units of affordable apartments and 6,00o to 12,000 square feet of retail on 1.8 acres above the Red/Purple Line’s Westlake/MacArthur Park Station. If the developer can secure the money to build the project, the north portal would be relocated as part of the deal. Staff report

How Driverless Cars Could Make Traffic Dramatically Worse

A new simulation shows that comfortable rides can come with big congestion costs.


By Eric Jaffe, January 26, 2015

Image Eric Brisson / Flickr

Safety is often celebrated as the biggest benefit of a world full of driverless cars, but two other presumed social improvements follow closely behind. One is that the technology could reduce traffic congestion, since shorter gaps between cars means more cars per lane. The other is that car travel will become more productive time for either business or pleasure—the way riding a train is today.
To wit: the way Mercedes envisions driverless interiors (top) isn't much different from the set-up already used in Amtrak's Acela (bottom):
A new simulation-based study of driverless cars questions how well these two big secondary benefits—less traffic and more comfort—can coexist. Trains are conducive to productivity in large part because they aren't as jerky as cars. But if driverless cars mimic the acceleration and deceleration of trains, speeding up and slowing down more smoothly for the rider's sake, they might sacrifice much of their ability to relieve traffic in the process.

"Acceleration has big impacts on congestion at intersections because it describes how quickly a vehicle begins to move," Scott Le Vine of Imperial College London, who led the research, tells CityLab via email. "Think about being stuck behind an 18-wheeler when the light turns green. It accelerates very slowly, which means that you're delayed much more than if you were behind a car that accelerated quickly."

For their study, Le Vine and colleagues simulated traffic at a basic four-way urban intersection where 25 percent of the vehicles were driverless and the rest were standard. In some scenarios, the driverless cars accelerated and decelerated the way that light rail trains do—more comfortable than, say, riding in a taxi, but still a little jerky at times. In other scenarios, the cars started and stopped with the premium smoothness of high-speed rail.

Within these broad scenarios the researchers also tested alternatives that reduced speeds but improved smoothness, such as longer yellow lights or following distances. All told they modeled 16 scenarios against a baseline with all human-driven cars. The researchers then ran each simulation for an hour, repeated it 100 times, and calculated the average impact that scenario had in terms of traffic delay and road capacity.

In every single test scenario, driverless cars designed to create a comfortable, rail-style ride made congestion worse than it would have been in a baseline scenario with people behind every wheel.

The final traffic tolls ranged from annoying to frightening. In the baseline situation, without any driverless cars, each vehicle experienced a delay of 20 seconds at the intersection. When driverless cars accelerated and decelerated in the style of light rail, the congestion worsened from 4 percent (21 seconds) to 50 percent (30 seconds). The number of cars traveling through the intersection—at 1,793 in the baseline scenario—also fell between 4 percent (1,724 cars) and 21 percent (1,415 cars).

The HSR-smoothness scenario was even scarier. Against the same baseline, autonomous cars that started and stopped like high-speed rail increased delay anywhere from 36 percent (27 seconds) to nearly 2,000 percent (6 minutes and 44 seconds!). Meanwhile, intersection capacity fell between 18 percent (1,469 cars) and 53 percent (850 cars).

In other words, if we want riding in a driverless car to be as comfortable as riding in a train, we need to consider the possibility that more traffic will be the result. Le Vine and company conclude:
Our findings suggest a tension in the short run between these two anticipated benefits (more productive use of travel time and increased network capacity), at least in certain circumstances. It was found that the trade-off between capacity and passenger-comfort is greater if autonomous car occupants program their vehicles to keep within the constraints of HSR (in comparison to LRT).
The work is a reminder that the full benefits of a driverless-car world might take quite some time to materialize—and that we should prepare for the challenges, too. Le Vine acknowledges that congestion might very well clear up once every vehicle in the fleet is autonomous, or even once there are enough to create driverless platoons. Until then, however, the traffic outcomes are much less predictable and very possibly negative.

Consider, for instance, that these simulations didn't include pedestrians. Doing so no doubt would have led to even more starting and stopping, and thus more delay. And if seatbelts remain mandatory in driverless cars, that might require smoother acceleration and deceleration; much of the comfort of a train ride, after all, is the lack of seat restraints. Traffic behavior would also change if manufacturers offer people several driving profile options—say, from ultra-smooth to aggressive.

All the more reason to think driverless cars will complement, rather than immediately replace, public transportation in cities.

The Invention of America's 'Love Affair' With the Automobile

One historian calls it a "masterstroke of public relations" made possible by a single 1961 television special.


By Eric Jaffe, January 29, 2015

 Image Chris Richards / Flickr

A love of cars seems as fundamentally American as George Washington eating apple pie in a suburban McMansion financed with a subprime mortgage. But the chart below, which tracks the phrase "love affair with the automobile" in books across the 20th century, makes us wonder if this love was ever truly timeless. Though Americans drove and owned cars for the entirety of this period, there's no mention of a "love affair" in the public discourse until roughly 1960:
University of Virginia historian Peter Norton offers a more precise date for your consideration: October 22, 1961.

It was on this Sunday night when NBC aired a program called "Merrily We Roll Along"—promoted as "the story of America's love affair with the automobile." During the show, host Groucho Marx introduced the "love affair" metaphor to millions of viewers, casting cars as "the new girl in town." To make this love work, Marx explained, Americans were willing to overcome intrusive regulations, endure awful traffic jams, and if necessary, redesign entire cities.

"We don't always know how to get along with her, but you certainly can't get along without her," said Marx. "And if that isn't marriage, I don't know what is."

To Norton, "Merrily We Roll Along" was less a story about America's existing love affair with the car than the invention of that very idea. The show's sponsor, DuPont, had an obvious interest: it owned 23 percent of General Motors at the time. Norton calls the show a "masterstroke of public relations" manufactured by the car industry to counter the likes of Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and other critics who, at the dawn of the interstate highway era, questioned the wisdom of dedicating every inch of urban street space to personal vehicles.

"This is the beginning of the 'love affair' thesis," said Norton earlier this month, during a talk at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board. "It was after this show that the word becomes part of mainstream discussion. Although nobody remembers how it entered the discourse. I'd suggest to you that these are re-writers of history."

The phrase has become so entrenched in American life that the premise itself rests high above questioning. (Today Google autocompletes a search for "American love affair with—" to "cars," producing 21.8 million results as of this writing; the second-most common ending, at 5.31 million pages, is "guns.") On the contrary, Norton's work has documented that for most of the early 20th century there was no clear consensus over whether cars or other users had more of a right to city streets.

"This story's success is apparent in a powerful governing assumption: streets are for cars," writes Norton in a chapter about the love affair thesis in the 2014 book Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, and Possibilities. "Drivers accept that streets are for cars and don't have much to say about it—until another street user behaves as if streets are for anything else."

During his TRB talk, Norton argued that historical revision like the love affair concept is often used to "justify the assumptions" that guide urban planning today. If you believe America's love affair with the automobile was a natural outcome of free choice, then it's easier to rationalize the idea of rebuilding cities to accommodate car travel. But if that underlying assumption is flawed—and the "love affair" is artificial marketing lingo—then its outcomes may not reflect true public preference after all.

Here's Norton talking to Wonkblog's Emily Badger about how America's car reliance is not necessarily the result of people choosing the car over all other modes:
"If you locked me in a 7-Eleven for a week, and then after the end of the week unlocked the door and you studied my diet over the previous seven days, then concluded that I prefer highly processed, packaged foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, I would say your study is flawed," Norton says.

A big problem with Norton's case is that many Americans obviously do love automobiles, and with good reason: a car is an extremely convenient way to get around. Motorization was increasing well before 1961 in the United States, which suggests the love affair might have already existed, if perhaps gone unspoken. So does the fact that car use increased with economic growth in countries around the world, many of which wouldn't know Groucho Marx from Karl.

Norton acknowledges that the "love affair" may well be real for some people. He just wants everyone to appreciate the careful craftsmanship, by vested interests, that went into making it the dominant theory. At the close of his recent chapter in Incomplete Streets, he takes the additional step of suggesting to advocates of alternative transport that they can learn a key lesson from this history about the power of a strong narrative:
Motordom did not believe Americans loved cars enough to bring about the motor age unaided. Rather, it so feared the hostility to automobiles, especially in cities, that it organized perhaps the greatest private-sector public relations effort ever undertaken. It could not have succeeded if the car had not held powerful attractions, which it certainly did. But motordom knew that it would take more than that to convince Americans to recommit their streets to the almost exclusive use of motor traffic, and to rebuild their cities around cars. Advocates of alternatives have much to learn from their success.

Why Can't Public Transit Be Free?

The main goal of transportation that costs riders nothing—getting people out of their cars—can't be achieved by eliminating fares.


By Joe Pinsker, January 29, 2015

 Image Reuters/Carlos Barria

About 500 subway riders in Stockholm have an ingenious scheme to avoid paying fares. The group calls itself Planka.nu (rough translation: "dodge the fare now"), and they've banded together because getting caught free-riding comes with a steep $120 penalty. Here's how it works: Each member pays about $12 in monthly dues—which beats paying for a $35 weekly pass—and the resulting pool of cash more than covers any fines members incur. As an informal insurance group, Planka.nu has proven both successful and financially solvent. "We could build a Berlin Wall in the metro stations," a spokesperson for Stockholm's public-transit system told The New York Times. "They would still try to find ways to dodge."

These Swedes' strategy might seem like classic corner-cutting, but there's a dreamy political tint to their actions. Like similar groups before them—Paris's M├ętro-cheating "fraudster mutuals," for example—they argue that public transportation should be free, just like education, parks, and libraries (and health care, in some parts of Europe). Planka.nu in particular laments the superiority of the car in what it calls "the current traffic hierarchy." "The pure act of putting oneself behind the wheel seems, for almost everyone, to lead to egotistic behavior," the group writes in one online manifesto. "We are confident that one is not born a motorist, but rather becomes one."

These fare-dodging collectives' egalitarian dream happens to align with some hopes of U.S. policy makers. There's an intuitive, consequentialist argument that making public transit free would get drivers off the road and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In the U.S., where government subsidies cover between 57 and 89 percent of operating costs for buses and 29 to 89 percent of those for rail, many public-transit systems are quite affordable, costing in most cases less than $2, on average. If it might make transit more accessible to the masses and in the process reduce traffic and greenhouse-gas emissions, why not go all the way and make transportation free?

The earliest urban experiment in free public transit took place in Rome in the early 1970s. The city, plagued by unbearable traffic congestion, tried making its public buses free. At first, many passengers were confused: "There must be a trick," a 62-year-old Roman carpenter told The New York Times as he boarded one bus. Then riders grew irritable. One "woman commuter" predicted that "swarms of kids and mixed-up people will ride around all day just because it doesn't cost anything." Romans couldn't be bothered to ditch their cars—the buses were only half-full during the mid-day rush hour, "when hundreds of thousands battle their way home for a plate of spaghetti." Six months after the failed, costly experiment, a cash-strapped Rome reinstated its fare system.

Three similar experiments in the U.S.—in Denver, Colorado, and Trenton, New Jersey, in the late 70s, and in Austin, Texas, around 1990—also proved unfruitful and shaped the way American policy makers viewed the question of free public transit. All three were attempts to coax commuters out of their cars and onto subway platforms and buses. While they succeeded in increasing ridership, the new riders they brought in were people who were already walking or biking to work. For that reason, they were seen as failures.

A 2002 report released by the National Center for Transportation Research indicated that the lack of fares attracted hordes of young people, who brought with them a culture of vandalism, graffiti, and bad behavior—which all necessitated costly maintenance. The lure of "free," the report implied, attracted the "wrong" crowd—the "right" crowd, of course, being wealthier people with cars, who aren't very sensitive to price changes. The NCTR report concluded that eliminating fares "might be successful for small transit systems in fairly homogenous communities, it is nearly certain that fare-free implementation would not be appropriate for larger transit systems."

Another report followed up 10 years later, revisiting the idea of a fare-free world. The report reviewed the roughly 40 American cities and towns with free transit systems. Most of the three dozen communities had been greatly successful in increasing ridership—the number of riders shot up 20 to 60 percent "in a matter of months." But these successes were only to be found in communities with transit needs different from those of the biggest cities; almost all of the areas studied were either small cities with few riders, resort communities with populations that "swell inordinately during tourist seasons," and college towns. In other words, slashing fares to zero is something that likely wouldn't work in big cities.

Despite that, one big city has tried. In January 2013, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, announced that it was making public transit free to all of its citizens. A study released a year later revealed that the move only increased demand by 1.2 percent—though it did inspire Estonians that year to register as Tallinnian citizens at three times the normal rate. The authors of the Tallinn study reached the same conclusion as the NCTR: Free subway rides entice people who would otherwise walk, not people who would otherwise drive.

What makes more sense than implementing free transit on a grand scale is deploying it as a specialized tool. By the summer of 2013, officials in Singapore, for example, noticed that the city's subways were getting unsustainably crowded during peak hours, between 8:15 and 9:15 in the morning. In response, the city comped rides for anyone who got off the train in a city center before 7:45. The shift made a significant difference. Before the rule change, peak-hours riders outnumbered off-peak riders about three to one; after, that ratio was closer to two to one.

Getting people less frustrated with the concept of paying for public transportation, though, might just be a matter of telling them about its operating costs. Public transit is wildly expensive, but also, as noted above, heavily subsidized. A 2014 study in Transportation Research found that simply telling people just how heavily subsidized their subways and buses were made them willing to pay more money to ride. (Perhaps the recent price hike in New York's public-transit system would have gone over more smoothly had the system's subsidies also been publicized.)

Perhaps the cost of public transportation shouldn't be looked at from an angle of reducing traffic and emissions. Sure, that's a noble question, but those turnstile-hopping Swedes might have a point. Maybe free public transit should be thought of not as a behavioral instrument, but as a right; poorer citizens have just as much of a privilege to get around conveniently as wealthier ones. If the debate shifted from means-to-an-end thinking to pure egalitarianism, the hope of free public transit might actually be realized. Until then, there's always Planka.nu.

More Women Ride Mass Transit Than Men. Shouldn't Transit Agencies Be Catering to Them?

In cities like Philadelphia, a remarkable 64 percent of the people riding public transportation are thought to be women.


By Sarah Goodyear, January 30, 2015

 Image REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The majority of the people who use public transit in the United States are women. They account for 55 percent of overall ridership across the country, according to a 2007 survey from the American Public Transportation Association. In some places, the proportion of women riders is even higher.

Jim Saksa, transportation reporter for the website PlanPhilly, has crunched some numbers and found that Philadelphia leads the nation in this department: according to a recent survey by SEPTA, the city's transportation agency, a remarkable 64 percent of the people riding Philly’s subways and buses are women. Chicago was second in his accounting, with a 62 percent female ridership on the MTA, while Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston all came in at 60 percent.

While differences in methodology mean the results aren’t strictly comparable (as Saksa writes, it isn’t so much apples to oranges as “mandarins to tangerines”), the numbers are striking. The most recent tally of self-reported female commuters from the American Community Survey again shows Philly in the lead, with 58.5 percent (Baltimore is close behind). Nationwide, 50.5 percent of transit commuters are women, even though they comprise only 47 percent of the workforce.

There's likely no single answer to why women take mass transit more than men, or why Philadelphia has a particularly female transit ridership. “There are a dozen things going on,” says Saksa, who says the big number of women riders jumped out at him when he began reviewing SEPTA data soon after starting his PlanPhilly job. “It’s a perfect storm of sorts. Our largest employers are industries that are particularly dominated by women—clerical, retail, health. Wage inequality probably plays a part. We can only just point out a bunch of correlations here.”

A woman wheels a baby stroller onto a New Jersey Transit train at Penn Station in Newark, New Jersey.
According to Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, women predominate on mass transit around the globe. It’s a phenomenon, she says, that is mostly not a matter of choice. “I don’t know about Philadelphia, but there are many studies that indicate there are women who are riding transit out of necessity,” she says. “Women are captive transit users. If there is one car in the family, it is often driven by the man in the household. Men are much more likely to use motorbikes or mopeds than women. Taking a taxi is often too expensive to be an option. For many of these women [public transit] is the only transportation mode.”

Yet Loukaitou-Sideris, along with many other researchers, has found that as much as they are compelled by circumstance to use transit, women are also often wary of it for reasons of personal safety.

“Women are more frightened to use transit,” she says. “For many of them this is always in the back of their minds, safety, being on my own at night. Even in taxis. If it is a woman alone, it is always a kind of consideration.” As she and co-author Camille Fink wrote in a 2008 paper published in Urban Affairs Review, “fear has some significant consequences for women and leads them to use precautionary measures and strategies that affect their travel patterns.”

Those concerns are something that women are often left to cope with on their own. As Ann Friedman wrote here last year, despite the persistent worries of women about transit safety, those concerns are rarely directly addressed in the United States.

In her 2008 paper, Loukaitou-Sideris reported that “[f]ew researchers, transit agencies, or policy makers have directly asked women passengers about their safety needs or sought to identify women’s proposals and preferences regarding safe and secure travel.” She and her colleagues surveyed U.S. transit agencies to find out what, if any, strategies they employed to address the particular safety concerns of women.

Of the 131 operators that responded to the survey, only three said they had any safety efforts that were specifically tailored toward women, although two-thirds of respondents expressed the opinion that women had special vulnerability when riding transit. (A spokesperson for SEPTA said that agency did not have any specific safety policies tailored to women, but that the agency had safety as a general priority for all passengers.)

By contrast, Loukaitou-Sideris says, transit agencies in several European countries, as well as Australia, Canada, and Japan, have launched programs specifically targeted at women’s safety, based on the concerns expressed by women themselves as assessed by safety audits and surveys of female passengers. “Since our survey covered more than half of all the large and medium-sized transit operators in the United States,“ writes Loukaitou-Sideris, “we have to sadly conclude that the United States is considerably behind other countries on the issue of transit safety for women.”

Of course, safety from crime is not the only consideration for women on transit. One of the reasons that women predominate on transit, researchers believe, is that they are most often the caretakers of children and responsible for many of the household errands. Better accommodations for strollers as well as other measures to increase the ease of traveling with children could no doubt dramatically improve their lives.

The lack of such accommodations can have tragic consequences, as the case of Raquel Nelson showed. Nelson, a young mother with several children in tow, was coming home from a long and arduous bus journey in the Atlanta area in 2010. After getting off the bus directly across the street from her building, three children and her grocery shopping in tow, Nelson crossed the street to get home, traveling with other pedestrians across several lanes in a spot where there was no crosswalk. Her four-year-old son was hit and killed by an impaired driver who then fled the scene.

Nelson was prosecuted and convicted of vehicular manslaughter because she didn’t use the crosswalk, which was located a third of a mile away (none of the members of the all-white jury were regular users of public transportation). After years of legal battles, Nelson’s conviction was eventually dropped and she ended up with a ticket for jaywalking. But similar life-threatening conditions for people traveling with children—usually women—remain common across the United States. A similar case occurred, also in the Atlanta area, late last year.

Marketers of many, many consumer products focus on women—quite naturally, because women are the ones doing most of the buying for families. Imagine if more transit systems in the U.S. started doing the same. The result would no doubt be transit systems that would be better for, and more attractive to, everyone.

NO710 Activists at Metro Board of Directors Meeting 1/29/2015: Video by Joe Cano