Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Providence: The Quiet Revival by Alon Levy

[ Here is the second in the two part guest author series on Providence. Alon Levy of Pedestrian Observations brings his typical keen insight to the city – Aaron. ]

Rustwire’s recent article about Providence, and a less recent article on the Urbanophile, have made me think about Providence’s growth. The Urbanophile comes strongly on the side of the power of its coziness; Rustwire takes the opposite track, talking about redevelopment and about the problems of the current recession, which has hit Rhode Island particularly hard.

With the caveat that I’m familiar mainly with the East Side, let me say that the redevelopment is unimpressive. Providence doesn’t look like it’s booming (in reality, its metro area income growth is high), and the city itself is very poor. That said, it doesn’t look very poor – not just on the East Side, which is solidly upper middle-class, but also near downtown. Downcity has a lot of urban renewal hell, but it doesn’t look especially bad.

To me the contrast is with New Haven, a city I’ve visited many times over the last few years, and there’s simply no competition. Although New Haven’s Chapel Street is busier and livelier during than anything I’ve seen in Providence, away from it the city looks post-apocalyptic (and even then, Thayer Street generally stays open later than Chapel). Yale student housing is in glorified project towers surrounded by too much parking, and a never-completed freeway stub and elevated parking structures cut off the main campus from the medical center. Providence has its share of freeways slicing neighborhoods apart, but the East Side managed to avoid them, and its housing stock is normal buildings, developed by different individuals over hundreds of years. Perhaps this better urban integration is why despite being poorer than New Haven, Providence maintains lower crime rates, echoing Jane Jacobs’ points about safety.

In other words, Providence is starting from a much better base than peer cities, though, going purely by income, nearly all secondary Northeastern cities are growing fast. The issue is not that Providence is rebranding itself as the Renaissance City, or Creative Capital. It’s that it was messed up less than other cities. Worcester has almost nothing next to the train station. New Haven has housing projects that I know people who are afraid to walk through. Providence has sterile condos and a mall, but next to them are some nice secondary shopping streets, and beyond them, in the right directions, lies intact urbanism, on the East Side and in Federal Hill.

If anything, most relevant government policy even in recent decades has hurt city walkability. In the 1980s, the city moved the railroad tracks north of the river, severing them from the East Side Railroad Tunnel. Simultaneously, it built Providence Place Mall and today’s train station, covering what used to be elevated track. The project was meant to remove an eyesore from downtown, but instead just moved the station to a more inconvenient location, and the mall sucked retail out of Downcity streets. Even what Rustwire calls highway removal was really a realignment: the I-195 river crossing was moved to a more southerly location since the old route was not up to the latest design standards, and this also happened to move the freeway farther away from Downcity and reunite it with the previously-isolated Jewelry District. There’s nothing wrong with that realignment, but it’s the kind of project Robert Moses would’ve supported.

On top of this, the attitude toward economic development is just embarrassing. Last year, I went to a meeting featuring smartphone app writers who claimed that “Providence is like a startup,” without a shred of irony about using this word to refer to a 17th-century city. A representative from the city government talked about the subsidies the city is paying to young entrepreneurs to just come live here.

And still the revival continues. Rhode Island may have one of the highest unemployment rates in the US today, but income growth is high; things are slowly getting better. The most visible growth in the US is in population rather than income, and so the usual markers are new housing starts, new infrastructure, and a lot of “coming soon” signs. Providence of course doesn’t have much of this. Instead, people are getting richer, slowly. RISD students occasionally go down the hill to Downcity (though Brown students don’t, since Brown’s campus is much higher uphill).

Economic growth in the richest countries is slow enough that people don’t perceive it. Instead, they think it’s the domain of countries that are catching up, such as China, where it’s so fast it includes new construction and the other markers that signify population growth in the first world. In the long run, it matters that a city’s income grows 1.8% a year rather than 1.1%, but it’s not visible enough to be captured by trend articles until long after the spurt of growth has started.

This article originally appeared in Pedestrian Observations on March 7, 2012.

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Consensus and Vision by Alon Levy

[ Here’s part three of Alon Levy’s series on cities and consensus. Again, I’d encourage you to check out his blog Pedestrian Observations. He continues to provoke in his thinking, such as in his recent post on how transit agencies are forced to pay for highway projects – Aaron. ]

The death of Steve Jobs has led to impromptu discussions about the nature of his genius, causing some to call for a Steve Jobs of transit. Human Transit quotes such calls in comments and tries to strike a balance between good organization and singular vision; Market Urbanism tweets that it’s impossible only because of public control.

Instead of this fantasy for someone who will have enough power to make transit great, let us step back and ask what makes transit cities work. It’s not really vision – the inventions that have made transit more useful in the last few decades (for example, the takt and the integrated timetable) are so distributed that it’s impossible to assign them a single inventor or even agency. And in the US, the last true visionary of urban transportation, Robert Moses, had about the same effect on the city he ruled that such visionaries as Stalin and Mao had over their countries.

The absolute worst quote one can invoke in the field is Henry Ford’s apocryphal claim that if he’d asked customers what they’d wanted, they’d have said faster horses; Ford may never have said that, but he believed something along these lines, and as a result lost the market to General Motors in the 1920s. People tend to project the same attitude, with far more success, to Steve Jobs: he saved Apple from ruin when he came back, he saw potential in Xerox’s computers that nobody else did, he focused on great design above all. Some of this is due to the cult of personality Jobs created around himself, unparalleled in the industry; a better assessment of Apple’s early growth comes from Malcolm Gladwell, who dispenses with Great Man histories and talks about innovation as an incremental process requiring multiple different business cultures to get anywhere.

In cities, there really is a need for consensus rather than autocratic vision. The reason Moses was so bad for New York is not just that he happened to be wrong about how cities should look. Roads were not his only sin, and on one account, the use of tolls, he was better than the national road builders. No; he reigned over a city that to him existed only on maps and in models, routing expressways through blocks with the wrong ethnic mix and depriving neighborhoods of amenities in retribution for not being able to complete his plans. Because he was insulated from anyone who could tell him what the effect of his policies was, and had no effective opposition, he could steamroll over just anyone.

The reality is that any Steve Jobs-like autocrat is going to act the same. Moses did it; Janette Sadik-Khan is doing it, delaying even popular projects in Upper Manhattan because of the perception that it’s against livability; Jaime Lerner did it, moving pollution from Curitiba to its suburbs and slowing but not preventing the spread of cars. In contrast, Jane Jacobs’ own observations of her struggle are the opposite, focusing on consensus and participation and crediting “hundreds of people” with saving the West Village. Everything I said about consensus and cities and about democratic consensus applies here.

The same is by and large true of transit. Although the subject is more technical, the role of experts is similar to their role in urbanism: answering narrow technical questions (“does the soil allow this building type to be built?”, “how much will it cost to run trains faster?”), helping people see tradeoffs and make their own choices, bringing up foreign examples that local activists may not be familiar with. They’re just one of several interest groups that have to be heard.

I think people who ascribe invention to great individuals finding things consumers didn’t even know they wanted are projecting the history of the 19th century to present times. At the time, invention was done individually, often by people without formal education. It was already fairly incremental, but much less so than today, and was portrayed as even less incremental since to get a patent approved the inventor had to play up his own role and denigrate previous innovations. Since it was not done in the context of large companies or universities, the corporate culture issue that Gladwell focuses on didn’t apply. The economy, too, was understood as a process involving discrete inventions, rather than a constant rate of growth, as Andrew Odlyzko’s monograph on the Railway Mania discusses in chapter 15.

We no longer live in such a world. Fixed-route public transportation has existed since the 1820s. Practically all innovations within transit since have been slow, continuous improvements, done by large groups of people or by many individuals working independently. Even implementations of previous ideas that became wildly successful are rarely the heroic fit of a mastermind. The few cases that are, such as Jaime Lerner’s dirt-cheap BRT, indeed spawn rants about democratic consensus and raves about vision and fast decisions.

In contrast, I do not see any mention in mainstream US media of the role of Swiss consensus politics in the backing of the Gotthard Base Tunnel or in SBB’s 50% over-the-decade growth in passenger rail traffic. If there’s a story about Tokyo or Hong Kong, it’ll be about skyscrapers and development, not about their collective decisions to restrain car traffic while rapid transit was still in development. And while China’s rapid expansion of transit and high-speed rail, at much lower cost than in the US, has gotten much media coverage, scant attention has been paid to Spain even though its costs are lower and its expansion is nearly as rapid.

What’s happening is that people imagine single heroes to do what is really the work of many. Alternatively, they romanticize autocrats, even ones who were unmitigated disasters, such as Moses. Even stories about consensus and social movements get rewritten as stories about great people, for example Jane Jacobs, or more broadly Martin Luther King. It’s an aesthetic that treats everything as a story, and in the 19th century, it often was: in other words, it’s steampunk. The difference is that steampunk artists don’t wish to return to a world in which women have to wear corsets. And in similar vein, people who imagine benevolent, visionary dictators should not try to confuse their fiction with reality.

Also by Alon Levy:
Cities and Consensus (first part in this series)
Democratic vs. Elite Consensus (second part in this series)
The Urgency of Reforming the Federal Railroad Administration

This post originally appeared in Pedestrian Observations on October 11, 2001.

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Democratic vs. Elite Consensus by Alon Levy

[ Here is part two of Alon Levy’s series on consensus. Hopefully it stirs you to the type of robust public debate he encourages – even if by completely repudiating his views! – Aaron. ]

Early-20th century America was a nation with remarkable consensus about cities. The progressive reformers, the populists, and the environmental movement all agreed that cities were bad, and the only solution to their problem was widespread destruction of slums. It’s this general agreement that gave autocrats like Robert Moses their power. Obviously, this consensus missed one key piece of the puzzle – namely, the consent of the urban dwellers who were being discussed as objects rather than as participants. Thus, a good consensus has to involve everyone, and not just the elites, or else it at best degenerates into elite vs. populist politics, and at worst leads to virtual colonialism.

The distinction between democratic or popular consensus and elite consensus is important, because in places that have only had the latter, including the US, people can form their views of consensus around features that are really special to elite consensus, as represented by insider publications such as the Washington Post, most of the New York Times, and a horde of Washington-area trade journals. For one, elite speech is very measured, and phrased in reasonable-sounding ways: concerned but understanding of limits, haughty-sounding and wonky but still reducible to soundbites for the lay reader, and always phrased in an understated way. Those are Krugman’s Very Serious People, and the National Review’s liberal elite. The US has come a long way since the 1950s and enough people see this elite as a distinct faction rather than as a real national consensus, but many of the elite’s values have percolated and taint the notion of consensus.

In contrast, democratic consensus is a messy affair. What’s happening right now in the Israeli J14 housing protests – or, even more so, what happened a month ago, before the protest became an institution by itself – is exactly the process of consensus-formation. Tents representing all social and ethnic groups in the country are present. The protest began with culturally liberal Tel Avivis, but has Haredi tents; it’s majority-Jewish, but has had Arab speakers in Jewish towns and spread to Arab towns. On the ground, the dialogue is the exact opposite of that of the Washington Post: people yell and argue until the small hours of the night, debating different views of how to improve the housing situation, and listening to one another. They tolerate trolls who maliciously propose settlement expansion as the solution but do not feed them; they have more important things to discuss. The consensus ideas they’ve formed for how to deal with the housing situation involve concerns of all groups – two of the protesters’ demands are specific to Arab and Bedouin minorities, and, unlike the mishmash of demands one sees in the US at ANSWER protests, those demands are relevant to the issue at hand.

In the US, any attempt to discuss things in the manner of J14 rather than in the manner of the Washington Post is immediately lumped together with unserious partisanship. Even people who know how rotten elite consensus is have gotten used to its discourse: thus, Michael Lind exalts the attitudes of what he calls post-consensus America in a hippie-punching piece against public transportation and environmentalism.

Ironically, calls for technocracy are sometimes a reaction against this elite domination, when the elites put themselves on the other side of expert consensus, as they do on climate issues (see Lind’s other piece on the matter, or anything on the subject by George Will), and prefer to talk in terms of platitudes about unpredictability and how scientists may be wrong. There are sizable and growing organizations and pundits criticizing consensus from this technocratic point of view – for one, anything involved in the new atheist movement.

The properties of consensus are orthogonal to those of elitism, and are different from the properties of the combination of both. The most important is listening to people with different points of view without sneering. How messy or orderly the discussions are is not relevant – it speaks only to how different the parties involved are from one another and how much they initially disagree. It’s the process of listening, of forming conversation, that makes for productive and consensus-building debate. How nice people are to one another is only tangentially important. I submit that if you compare a Room for Debate piece on transportation with a thread of the same length on a transportation blog – even a repetitive fight over Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass on the California High-Speed Rail Blog, let alone the ideological arguments about financing on The Transport Politic – you’ll find that the blog is going to be more informative. Lay people talking to each other will beat thinktank fellows and professional pundits talking at each other any day.

The problem with extending this to urbanism is that cities’ power structure makes it very hard to give ordinary people the voice they deserve. People who are not part of the elite, by definition, are less powerful. And being elite by itself changes how one thinks, leading to factional interests different from those of ordinary people, independently of questions such as which social and ethnic groups the elites are drawn from. (Communist Party elites, high-income elites, and racial elites are equally unconcerned with the average person.)

Only in a city with a completely gated establishment can major media organizations refer to slum dwellers as “a city within a city” when they outnumber people living in formal neighborhoods, and quote researchers as saying crime is a big problem in the slums when it in fact isn’t. Unfortunately, as Robert Neuwirth‘s experience in Mumbai shows, such cities exist.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, democratic consensus is possible, by slowly persuading all stakeholders in a community that one’s solution is good and in line with community values. Usually, within a small enough community, the problem of democratic vs. elite consensus is less acute. Some groups are privileged over others – for example, long-term residents versus recent immigrants – but arguably no more so than in citywide politics. Where localism is oppressive is in treatments of minorities in situations with a defined majority group, but when it comes to participatory inclusion, it’s no worse than appealing to the power brokers and hoping for good. In a diverse neighborhood with multiple factions of which none can dominate, this problem is usually quite small. The local elites are not so powerful that one can’t approach them on more or less equal footing.

However, the only way to systematically unleash the power of democratic consensus is via populism, as the example of J14 shows us. It by itself is not purely consensus-based – it comes from a partisan fight between the people and those in power in which the people are acting as one bloc – but the result usually involves a fair amount of consensus, since anything else would lead to divide-and-rule politics. In the US – as well as Israel, and other developed countries I’m somewhat familiar with the discourse of – such populism can come off as polarizing and anti-consensual, because of the misidentification of what are really features of elitism with consensus.

Of course, to many people, populism is not a dirty word. The Tea Party, and its right-wing populist equivalents around Europe, has had many successes precisely because there’s a segment of the US that wants neither consensus nor the current elite. The same can be said of any proto-populism on the left. But there are plenty of people who do want government to work, and do like dialogue, and they can be turned off by what they perceive as unserious attitudes.

The way to create a situation in which both the relatively secure middle class and more radical factions – both ideological and socioeconomic – are willing to cast aside elite values is then to wait until things get bad enough. But it’s easier to imagine such consensus happening today than in 1965, and not just because of reduced racial animosities. It’s as if Marx was right except that, instead of a violent revolution, the dispossessed fight for social reforms that make their economic situation more secure.

The time could already be right. And the process of replacing elite bipartisanship – or hyper-partisan fights between parties that are unconcerned with actually governing – can be pursued on the local level, in parallel, to allow for time to create bottom-up institutions to take a more prominent role in the future. It could be that the US is waiting for its own tents in New York and Washington to lead to nationwide demonstrations.

This post originally appeared in Pedestrian Observations on September 7, 2011.

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Consensus and Cities by Alon Levy

[ You know that I’ve previously touted Alon Levy’s blog Pedestrian Observations. He focuses a lot on wonkish transit issues, but also has provocative posts on a range of other and often more general topics. One of them was a series he did promoting consensus in cities. He graciously gave me permission to repost it here, and today we have the first installment – Aaron. ]

The dominant discourse on cities nowadays focuses on the role of visionary, top-down innovation. Some write about mayors who change paradigms, such as Michael Bloomberg and now Rahm Emanuel. Others write about entrepreneurs and the role of new technology, and invariably portray the change as groundbreaking and unforeseen by all except the dogged inventor. In contrast to this worldview, let me propose a view of urbanism based on political consensus among disparate interests, on forging agreement instead of trying to defeat everyone else.

The current trend toward livable cities, as seen in road diets and bike lane projects, is entirely top-driven. Bloomberg decided to make it his legacy, and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan moves aggressively with little consultation with community interests except those that already agree with her. Rahm Emanuel, infamous for his combative style, followed suit. This caused livable streets advocates, led by Streetsblog, to often identify community consensus with NIMBYism and top-down change with improvement; it’s unavoidable on Streetsblog, though sometimes there are glimpses of support for a more consensus-based policy on other livable streets blogs.

In reality, in cities, there are too many interest groups for one to normally dominate: labor, the middle class, multiple kinds of business, organized religion – and in the exceptional cases, such as Singapore, it comes out of autocracy. This is especially true in the US, with its multi-ethnic cities, requiring delicate acts of ticket-balancing. This is easy to paper over in majoritarian political systems, as the US is, but the actual practice of politics in American cities is far from majoritarian. Liberal cities have become cities of primaries – one wins by assembling an ad hoc coalition that can win the Democratic primary. In general, cities have multiple interest groups, even independently of ethnicity: see for example Christof Spieler’s analysis of the 2009 Houston mayoral race. The reason this political process hasn’t led to a consensus-based decision making is that the electoral process – in particular, the authoritarian strong-mayor system – is anti-consensus.

And yet, a consensus-based agenda is possible. As one of the Streetsblog community members explained to me, the way to obtain community support for a project is to talk to all stakeholders in the neighborhood, and understand what their hidden hopes and fears are; it’s important to avoid any situation in which someone later complains “Nobody informed me about this.” Ordinary people are far less intransigent than they can appear in the papers. For example, along Queens Boulevard, the long-term residents are still reeling from plans to turn the street into an expressway, and therefore will support or oppose a livable streets proposal in part based on whether they perceive it as turning the street into more of a highway (closing cross-streets) or less of one (widening sidewalks).

A community so empowered with its own ideas about how to make itself pedestrian-friendlier will of course help if a top-down reformist politician wants to make the city more livable, but it can also convince an apathetic politician to champion its cause if it can demonstrate that this cause is popular. The same is true of many other public projects and contentious issues; support for many of them crosses ideological and partisan boundaries, both the normal national ones and the specific issue of machinists vs. reformists in American cities.

Consensus must be contrasted with its distant top-down cousin, outreach. Outreach is what a partisan or dominant side in a debate does to get the little fish on board. There’s almost no possibility of dialogue. In contrast, consensus implicitly assumes that all stakeholders own the decision, more or less equally even if one side began the push for it and in reality did most of the work. One can imagine a community board agreeing to a development plan put forth by a mayor, and then criticizing the mayor for it after it fails; one can’t imagine the same if the community board is the body that created the plan.

Film critic Pauline Kael, when asked to comment on why Nixon won the 1972 election, refused to comment, saying she couldn’t know because nobody she knew voted for him. (This has been misquoted in conservative circles as her saying that she couldn’t believe he could have won.) Kael’s contrition was unusual; most people are more than happy to generalize based on the few people they know who fit a type, or, even worse, based on stereotypes they’ve heard from others. It’s bad enough in a bipartisan world, but in city politics, the large number of different factions and worldviews is such that no one force can possibly know enough to govern for everyone.

Although the political process of any non-autocratic city forces some cooperation among groups, the practice can be authoritarian enough that many are completely unheard of in the halls of power. This is especially true of recent immigrants and others who have no long-term activist presence, or of racial minorities in cities with a majority race and racist politics. But even groups with some organization and voting power can be shut out by a Bloomberg, an Emanuel, or even a Villaraigosa. The result is that even policy that isn’t malevolent can be destructive; this is the sin of many postwar urban renewal programs, which didn’t have to accommodate the concerns of the neighborhoods they leveled and had no intention of listening to anyone they didn’t have to listen to.

The alternative is to embark on a process that’s slow, but more robust. It’s immune to changes in electoral fortunes, since swings from 52-48 to 48-52 don’t have such a huge impact on policy. The roads movement in the US got everything it wanted from the 1910s to the 1950s, from governing ideologies ranging from Hooverism to New Deal liberalism. It’s important to imitate this one aspect of the roads movement, and ensure as many groups as possible pull in the same direction.

There are always authoritarians-in-making, people who pay lip service to any consensual and democratic concept they need to be seen to support but in reality seek power for themselves and surround themselves with yes-men. Those we need to be watchful of, to make sure that they never have the power to cause permanent damage. Streetsblog has shown glimpses of holding the Bloomberg administration’s feet to the fire on issues on which the city has not been a positive force for livability – for example, the 1st/2nd Avenue bike lanes – but we need to do more than that, and ensure that even if an autocrat has power, we use him more than he uses us.

Switching from a fundamentally authoritarian booster mentality to consensus governance has no hope of getting us demolition of low-performing or city-splitting freeways, or Hong Kong-style traffic restraint, at least not until the far future. It will take a long time to overturn preexisting anti-urban biases – even longer than necessary, since it will be based on consultation with many groups that oppose gentrification and find what’s happening to American cities now a bad thing. It requires letting go of many proposals that are currently too expensive, and focusing on making the process friendlier to good transit and walkability and less so to boondoggles and pollution. It requires sitting down with people we may find abhorrent on other issues. Its saving grace is only that, in the medium and long runs, it works.

This post originally appeared in Pedestrian Observations on September 6, 2011.

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Bad US Rail Practices and What It Means for FRA Regulations by Alon Levy

[ Over at Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy has been doing a great job at documenting all the practices and regulations here in the US that put us at a huge disadvantage in having an effective transit system, even without our lack of commitment and funding. Here are further examples from him. I definitely recommend giving this blog a read – Aaron. ]

As I alluded to in the last few posts, although the FRA is the primary obstacle to a passenger rail revival, the old railroader traditions it reinforces are still strong in the commuter railroads. At some, for example the MBTA and the New York-area railroads, practices are even worse in terms of cost and performance than required by the FRA.

Witness the following issues, recurring on almost all US commuter lines:

1. Overstaffing, more than required by the FRA. The MBTA currently has one assistant conductor per two cars, and its proposal for an upgrade to newer rolling stock retains one conductor per two cars. The New York- and Chicago-area commuter trains have 3-6 conductors, punching everyone’s tickets. Caltrain maintains assistant conductors even though it does not punch tickets anymore. And New York’s plan with smartcards is not to institute proof-of-payment, as is normal throughout Europe, but rather to have conductors check every ticket using a smartcard reader, only faster: Jay Walder said as much at the MTA Unconference (it starts at 7:50 into the linked video, and goes into the next part).

2. Poor choice of rolling stock. See the same link above for the MBTA’s present acceleration profile, which is similar to that of the other commuter rail operators in the US using diesel locomotives. During acceleration from 0 to 60 mph, a train loses 70 seconds relative to going the same distance at full speed, and even under the DMU plan, it would lose 43. In contrast, a FLIRT loses about 13 seconds accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h. Despite this, there are no plans to electrify or ask for an FRA waiver.

Electrification alone could solve some problems, even without a waiver. The EMUs used by Metro-North lose 13-15 minutes from 12 intermediate stops on the Harlem Line, which after factoring in 30 seconds of dwell time works out to 35-45 seconds per station counting both acceleration and deceleration. Alternatively, if electrification is out, then an FRA waiver would open the doors to fast-accelerating as well as more fuel-efficient DMUs.

3. Poor use of existing infrastructure, especially at terminals. Even with FRA regulations, commuter trains with push-pull or multiple-unit service turn in about 5 minutes at their outer ends. They dwell for much longer at the downtown terminal, creating the illusion of capacity issues. To solve those capacity problems, railroads propose massive concrete, with no attempt to improve electronics or organization: the ARC cavern, the expensive ESA cavern, track expansion at Boston South.

4. A concrete-before-all-else strategy of investment, in direct opposition with organization before electronics before concrete. Amtrak and the commuter railroads that claim to be at capacity never investigated the possibility of better signaling, such as ERTMS. In addition, Amtrak’s Master Plan proposes extra trackage to avoid capacity problems in Massachusetts and Maryland that could be resolved with timed overtakes. Although organization is not sexy, it’s trivial for the various railroads using a station to share ticket vending machines and concourses, instead of separating into agency turfs; in addition, electronics is capital investment, and can get federal investment as well as good headlines about squeezing more capacity out of infrastructure. There’s no excuse for prioritizing concrete.

5. Poor integration with local transit in terms of fares and schedules. Commuter train stations are usually glorified parking lots; for one especially egregious example, compare Westborough’s train station location with its downtown location. Transit-oriented development is minimal. Best industry practice is to do the opposite, and instead integrate commuter rail with connecting buses at the suburban end, to say nothing of urban rail at the city end. Clipper in the Bay Area and the MTA’s proposals in the New York area have a single card that can be used to pay on both commuter rail and urban transit, but people will still have to purchase tickets separately, being punished first by the inherent inconvenience of transferring and then by being made to pay an extra fare.

6. Indifference to off-peak and reverse-peak riders. Peak ridership can fill trains, but is expensive to provide, because providing for more of it requires additional capital spending as well as additional employees working split shifts. Among the older railroads, the LIRR deserves singular scorn for running trains one-way on its two-track Main Line; although peak traffic on the three lines using the two-track segment is 23 tph, within the capabilities of two tracks under present signaling, the LIRR prefers being able to run express trains than any reverse peak trains. Outside the inner ends of a few very busy lines, such as the New Haven Line, off-peak service is at best hourly, and sometimes much worse. And at the peak, the commuter railroads eviscerate local service on their busiest lines in order to provide trains that make a few local stops and then express to the city, ensuring nobody will be able to use them to get to suburban job centers on the way.

7. Poor timetable adherence. Metro-North and Metra do somewhat better than the rest, but Amtrak only achieves 80% on-time performance even when it owns the tracks, and that’s after counting Northeast Corridor trains that are 20 minutes late as being on time. In contrast, SBB achieves 92% on-time performance by a 3-minute standard.

The importance of all this is that reform has to come from above, directed from Congress or the White House, or else from below by reform-minded railroads asking for many waivers and creating a template for smaller railroads to follow. Bruce McFarling has written various comments saying the FRA’s problem is one of regulatory capture by the freight railroads, and therefore the solution is to spend money on inferior passenger rail until there’s enough of a lobby for passenger rail-friendlier rules. This is unlikely; passenger rail advocates rarely care, with some positive but small exceptions such as NJ-ARP, and the passenger rail operators depicted in this post are wedded to the old way of doing things.

FRA reform by itself could help some of this, by creating a template for modern operations, consisting of a clockface schedules, short turnaround times, modern rolling stock, and regionally integrated fares and schedules. However, absent it, some forward-thinking railroad has to be the first to propose modernization. The MTA is ideally suited for it because of its high commuter rail ridership, but has no interest. As a result, good transit advocated need to keep harping on commuter operators as well as Amtrak to improve and reform, or propose reforms themselves. Hoping the status quo reforms itself will not cut it.

This post originally appeared in Pedestrian Observations on June 21, 2011.

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

The Urgency of Reforming the Federal Railroad Administration by Alon Levy

[ If you’ve spent any time around urbanist blogs, you’ve no doubt come across Alon Levy, one of the most prolific commenters around. Now that he’s a newly minted PhD – congrats! – he’s back to writing his own blog, Pedestrian Observations, which is a must for the serious urbanist. Levy brings encyclopedic knowledge, insight, and his own strong point of view to create some really provocative and informative posts. His tag line of “For Walkability and Good Transit, and Against Boondoggles and Pollution” basically sums it up, especially when you get that he’s as opposed to transit boondoggles as highway ones.

One of my pet peeves has always been how even high speed rail advocates have no interest in implementing the regulatory and managerial reforms necessary to make HSR work. Chief among these is fixing the broken regulatory approach of the FRA. Here is a post that is composed of a couple of Levy’s woven together that illustrates this problem. Thanks to him for letting me run them. – Aaron. ]

House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) has finally come out explicitly in favor of privatizing the Northeast Corridor and letting private consortia bid for high-speed rail construction. Mica’s rationale is that Amtrak is an inefficient government provider, and its proposal for spending $117 billion over 30 years to build high-speed rail in the Northeast is deficient.

Not mentioned anywhere in the article is the FRA, which is the real obstacle to modern rail operations. Mica has to my knowledge said nothing about the FRA, which is too bad, since it could feed into the Republican narrative of bad government and the need for privatization and deregulation.

Under present FRA regulations, not much more than NEC service levels can be done: rolling stock would have to meet guidelines developed for the steam era, curve speeds would be limited, and the signaling would not provide enough capacity for adequate service levels on shared track. This is independent of the incompetence of every FRA-compliant railroad; in fact part of the incompetence is manifested in unwillingness to try to get waivers, even though Caltrain, a small operator, applied for a partial waiver and got it.

On the other hand, under modern regulations, even Amtrak could provide somewhat better results, and an Amtrak that Mica and the Obama administration pressured to reform could provide much better results. Although such reforms would include less staffing per amount of service provided, ridership could increase so much that total employment would increase, making this at least in principle fathomable by the bureaucrats. If top management wants to make it happen, it will happen.

In contrast, no reform of the FRA is possible short of a complete overhaul. The appropriate passenger rail regulation in the US is that everything that’s legal in Japan or Europe is legal in the US, and the only local task should be a skeletal staff reconciling European and Japanese rules where necessary. A piecemeal approach leads to partial and suboptimal reforms, requiring additional testing of already extensively used trains. For example, in Europe, tilting trains can have up to 270-300mm of cant deficiency, but the FRA won’t permit more than 229 (9″).

JNR’s problems in the 1980s involved overstaffing and operation of marginal lines; these are the things privatization could fix. This is not true of bad regulations, which remain no matter what. Private vendors could lobby for a fix, but they have other interests in mind than maximum efficiency – for example, making life harder for competitors – and besides, what’s the point of hoping for private lobbyists to do a task that as chair of the relevant committee you can do yourself? At the end, a government that’s too incompetent to do things by itself is probably too incompetent to be trusted to ensure the private sector will provide better service rather than looting the taxpayer.

To give more specifics of regulatory problems, I’m hoisting a comment I wrote on the Infrastructurist detailing some of the FRA regulations that are the most destructive.

The original references for this are from Zierke’s website and the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, but those are a few years out of date, and recently the FRA has made noises about reforming the first two rules, which are the most destructive to intercity rail. Unfortunately, those reforms are not good enough, chiefly because they are designed to preserve the FRA’s bureaucracy, piling more obstacles on any attempt to modernize US trains.

1. 945 tons buff strength for locomotives and end cars and 360 for coaches (link); the maximum that’s even partly defensible is Europe’s 200, and Japan’s 100 is perfectly safe. This is by far the most important: as a result of this rule, the Acela power cars weigh 90 metric tons, vs. 68 for the TGV power cars they’re derived from. Zierke notes that the lighter the train, the higher the FRA weight penalty is.

2. 4″ maximum cant deficiency for non-tilting trains, except 5″ on track connected to 110+ mph rail (derisively called the magic HSR waiver by railfans). The Acela is limited to 7″ despite tilting. Non-tilting TGVs do 180 mm in France (about the same as the Acela) and tilting trains do 250-300 mm in Japan and a bunch of European countries, no special testing required except on actual track. In addition, superelevation is limited by regulation to 7″ minus a safety margin; high-speed lines around the world have 180 mm actual superelevation, and the Tokaido Shinkansen, which has tighter curves, has 200 mm.

Those two regulations are already being somewhat modified. Amtrak seems to believe that the nationwide mandate for positive train control (PTC), passed in 2008 in response to the Chatsworth crash, will allow it to run lighter trains; the FRA has granted Caltrain a waiver from the FRA buff strength rule provisioned upon PTC installation. As for cant deficiency, the FRA has already decided on a revision allowing tilting trains up to 225 mm cant deficiency, and non-tilting trains up to 150 mm by testing.

Unfortunately, those two reforms only look good at first glance. The Caltrain waiver application from the buff strength rule was devised in consultation with the biggest rolling stock manufacturers – Bombardier, Kawasaki, Alstom, and Siemens – which indicates which rules they could comply with and which they could not. This may well lock out smaller vendors, such as Stadler and CAF. Stadler’s FLIRT is the fastest-accelerating, highest-powered regional train on the market; it is also very light, and may well not comply even with regulations Caltrain did not ask out of.

In addition, since such waivers depend on PTC, if the freight railroads succeed in their attempt to delay or water down PTC implementation, which they consider too expensive, then future rolling stock purchases will remain heavy. Indeed, Amtrak’s purchase of new electric locomotives, due to enter service in 2013, is FRA-compliant and more expensive than purchases of similar locomotives in Europe; this despite the fact that they are intended to run on the Northeast Corridor, which has a PTC system.

As for the cant deficiency waiver, it was obtained by testing existing outdated technology in the US, such as Amtrak locomotives and the EMUs used on commuter rail in the Northeast. No attempt was made to use high-cant deficiency European technology, a point also made by Drunk Engineer. Such trains would have to be tested to the FRA’s satisfaction, and not be allowed to run at the same speeds as they do in Europe. In fact the FRA’s proposed rule revision includes a language about higher track standards for cant deficiency higher than 5″, never mind that TGVs run on less than perfect legacy track at 7″ cant deficiency.

In addition, for high-cant deficiency operation, it’s important to regulate both cant deficiency and the rate at which it changes. The muscles can adjust to lateral acceleration, given enough time; thus the jerk, or the rate of change of acceleration, must also be prescribed. With a proper superelevation ramp and change in cant deficiency based on the abilities of existing trains, high speeds and high cant deficiencies can combine well, as found in a Swedish study about the feasibility of very high-speed trains on legacy track.

Additional FRA regulations, which hamper regional rail more than intercity rail, seem to be here to stay. These include the following:

3. Two employees per train; regional trains should have one. But, bear in mind, many regional operators have multiple conductors, and the limit to lower staffing is antiquated trains or managerial incompetence rather than the FRA. For example, the MBTA believes it needs one conductor per two cars.

4. Brake tests at every turnaround. Intercity trains can enter a stub-end station and back away in 3-4 minutes, and do every day in Germany; regional trains turn around in 3-4 minutes in Japan. However, Amtrak makes Keystone trains dwell 10 minutes at Philadelphia.

5. Four-quadrant gates required for quiet zones; these make quiet zones expensive, and as a result trains have to blare loud horns at grade crossings, alienating neighbors and creating NIMBYism.

6. No regulations encouraging high-performance lightweight cars and good signaling. The FRA should mandate a modern system, preferably ETCS, which permits a throughput of up to 37 trains per hour at standard speeds. This is 12 tph more than currently can run between New Jersey and New York, and would be about $13 billion cheaper than Amtrak’s Gateway tunnel proposal, which would add 21 tph.

The multitude of bad regulations is why I think FRA reform has to be intensive, without any half-measures. The new rail regulations in the US should as much as possible be based on UIC (predominantly European) and Japanese regulations, with the present status quo ignored.

The only role of American regulators should be to devise a coherent system to allow European and Japanese trains to interact with each other. In some places, such as PTC and jerk, it requires greater regulation, based on best industry practices in the rest of the developed world. But in most other areas, the rule should as far as possible be that everything that’s legal in Europe or Japan is legal in the US.

I’ll repeat my exhortation in my post on Mica’s privatization plan: please contact the relevant Congressional representatives and let them know that any real reform must include extensive FRA reform. Organization and electronics should come before concrete, and such deregulation of rolling stock could jive well with the conservative mood in Congress that Mica is channeling. And if it does not, then never mind – the Democrats could seize FRA reform, too, as a good-government issue. It’s more important than whether future railroads are run publicly or privately.

This post originally appeared in modified form in Pedestrian Observation. Reprinted with permission.

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