Wednesday, July 29th, 2015
My latest piece is online in the Los Angeles Times. It’s about how environmental activists are trying to stop fracking and Alberta oil developments by obstructing the ability to export fossil fuels using local control over ports as a lever.
I am generally a strong proponent of local control, but disruption of global commerce, particularly when clearly motivated by non-local concerns, is not something localities should be doing. Interstate commerce, like immigration policy, is a clearly federal policy domain. Policy and regulation for it needs to be set at the federal level. People who don’t want oil drilling in Alaska should take that up with President Obama, who approved it, not the Port of Seattle.
Here’s an excerpt:
The Shell battle highlights a new tactic among environmental activists: Unhappy with policies made in Washington, they’re trying to use local regulations to set national policy. Pressuring cities and other local entities that control many of the nation’s ports, the greens hope to prevent fossil-fuel industries from obtaining permits and thus keep such energy from coming to market. And they’re having some success.
Under tremendous pressure from environmentalists, Portland, Ore., shot down a proposed propane-export terminal. Activist Daphne Wysham boasted that “residents of the Pacific Northwest have begun to mobilize in bold and successful resistance to these fossil fuel exports.”
Oregon greens are elsewhere trying to prevent the export of liquefied natural gas. As Stacey McLaughlin noted approvingly in an Oregonian op-ed, “If they cannot export natural gas, then they will need to cut back on fracking.” Similar battles are raging north of the border, in British Columbia, and on the East Coast. South Portland, Maine, for instance, banned the export of crude oil arriving there via pipeline.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015
Second Avenue Sagas pointed me at this new video about the signal replacement project on the New York subway system. The first couple minutes show the fossilized remains the original signaling system that is, amazingly, still for the most part used to control the subways. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
The MTA has a program underway to replace these, but it’s proceeding at snail’s pace. Only the Canarsie Line/L-train is complete, and the Flushing Line/7-train will be finished in 2017, supposedly. It will take five and a half years just to upgrade the western segment of the Queens Blvd Line. At this rate I’ll be long dead before they finish upgrading the whole system. And by that time, the new “state of the art” CBTC signalling system will itself long be past end of life.
It’s very difficult to upgrade NYC’s subways because they are a 24 x 7 x 365 system. The MTA employees do a fantastic job of keeping it going in difficult circumstances. But given the MTAs dubious record on major capital projects in terms of cost and timeline, it’s hard to believe this is the best that can be done.
This also shows why fully funding the MTA capital plan is so important. It’s about dealing with critical upgrades to the existing system to keep things going. If anything, the amount of capital funds devoted to the CBTC signal program should be significantly increased to start upgrading multiple lines in parallel.
Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
[ Many of you may be familiar with Charles Marohn and the crew over at Strong Towns. They do a great job at tracking some of the fiscal insanity around they way we build transportation. Here’s a 2014 piece by site contributor Nathaniel Hood talking about a questionable pedestrian bridge in Minneapolis. Similar projects exist all over – Aaron. ]
The Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Council is gambling $8.7 million on a project to alleviate pedestrian congestion that might exist in 5 to 10 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.
That’s like buying flood insurance on the house you have yet to buy.
The below $8.7 million piece of public infrastructure is intended to create a more safe passageway for travelers at the Downtown East station during Vikings home games. It’ll serve west and northbound train passengers and other pedestrians looking to enter a new football stadium. It is deemed this will be an important pedestrian overpass once all four major light rail lines completed.
Those reading this should have at least two questions:
- How did this come to be a thing?
- Why is it all of a sudden getting $8.7 million?
I pay particularly close attention to local projects. I read blogs, forums and newspapers daily. I know and follow local decision-makers on social media, track development proposals, and pay attention to those boring committees few care about. I also work in the industry and talk to other people who work and follow the industry across related professions. It’s fair to say that I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the Twin Cities and the transportation and development needs of the community.
Never once have I heard of this project until a few days ago. And now, out of the blue, we’re dropping $8.7 million on a bridge that’ll be needed 10 days a year starting in 2019.
I wrote a blog post last year titled The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure. It was well received, and is even being used as required reading in an undergrad planning course in California. In the article I theorize as to why we make bad decisions when it comes to receiving other people’s money on transit projects;
It’s the orderly, but dumb system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.
The pedestrian bridge is different. It may deal with Federal grants, but is also come from local and regional coffers. Regardless, this project is being pushed forward. According to the Star Tribune,
“The transit agency will likely devote $6 millon from its coffers for the project (this figure could be offset by federal grants), with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (which oversees stadium construction) ponying up $2 million, and the rest coming from bonds issues by the Met Council.”
Before we go any further, I think we need to ask a complex question.
How Did We Get Here?
The new $1 billion Green Line is done and the $1.1 billion Vikings Stadium is underway. They combine to represent over $2 billion of investment. Our local leaders are concerned, as they should be, that these pieces of infrastructure be as perfect as possible.
To quote a former Governor (one who wasn’t a professional wrestler),
“All too often, the human tendency is to compound one big mistake with a series of additional mistakes in the hope that somehow the results will improve. This appears to be the case with the Vikings stadium.”
Politicians are attracted to big, transformitive projects, so it seems only natural that our leaders, who have expelled a great amount of political capital, want to see every inch of it succeed. Even if that means throwing good money after bad.
How We Justify It All
An engineer at the Met Council, likely under much political pressure, noticed something: based on 2019 projections, during peak hours on Minnesota Vikings game days, there will be only a 120 second headway between trains. This will likely not be enough time to manage safe pedestrian crossings. The proposed solution is the bridge.
The pedestrian bridge makes some sense. Based on the projections, there will be long lines and delays during this period; and building a bridge for pedestrians certainly isn’t an unreasonable response. The Met Council’s Transportation Committee appears to be interested in the idea.
Let’s look at these assumptions: they assume that there will be two additional light rail lines in full operation, both of which have not yet even been either fully allocated money or constructed. Basically, the Met Council is gambling $8.7 million that there might be a problem in 5 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.
To reiterate: Four (4) LRT lines being in operation (Blue, Green, SW & Bottentieu) and that Vikings game attendees hitting a 40% transit mode share. All of things don’t currently exist. It also assumes, more importantly, that if there is congestion people will not find an alternative route or change their travel behavior. This isn’t to say we can’t plan ahead. We should. But, we should be more realistic in our projections and our priorities.
Where Are Our Priorities?
Why did this project get fast-tracked while other smaller, more “everyday” projects never see the light of day? And, when smaller projects get the public’s attention, why do they struggle to find funding? These are merely a question of priorities.
As Nick Magrino (at streets.mn) has asked so often, “why are we embarrassed by the bus?” He writes,
“… I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on.”
A bridge like this seems like such a low priority, especially when we have legitimate transportation needs. For example, THIS is a bus stop on a heavily used transit line near the center of Minneapolis.
It’s not that a pedestrian bridge is a terrible idea. Under the projections, at some point in the future, it seems maybe reasonable. But, why is the Met Council prioritizing and fast-tracking this, whereas things like bike lanes, bus shelters, and potholes get ignored? I say this because you could build 40 miles of protected bike lanes for the same price tag.
Projects can take on a life of their own. There is no traditional process to getting things done. In this pedestrian overpass, you have the right person with the right slideshow presenting it to the right people at the right time. From here, you have the Met Council employees and political-appointed representatives who have monies at their disposal. The proposal, while not perfect, seems reasonable enough. And, we’ve just spent $2 billion on infrastructure, so we need to make it right. The presentation looks good, so why not go for it?
What Would Your City Do With $8.7 Million?
Imagine if the City of Minneapolis was given $8.7 million that could only be used on downtown pedestrian and/or transit projects. What would they do? The answer is: not a pedestrian bridge to be used during 10 sports games a year.
So, why are we doing it?
The answer is that we can get money from elsewhere to do the things we don’t need to do. But, when it comes to doing the simple things that we need to do, well, that money isn’t available from elsewhere. The pedestrian bridge is a bad idea (right now) that’s made worse when you think of the countless thousands of more useful public investments we could be making.
The truth is that the people and the City of Minneapolis don’t even care about it. It’s not on their radar. It’s the people who control infrastructure and transportation dollars who care about this. If given the opportunity to allocate these dollars elsewhere, it’s fair to say that literally everyone locally would divert them elsewhere.
Our priorities get skewed and we misallocate resources most when our funding comes from elsewhere. In fact, it is precisely why Minneapolis has the below. All of which the City of Minneapolis will be tearing down in 30 years …
Note: This is also next to a proposed park called “The Yard” that neither the City of Minneapolis nor it’s Park Board want to maintain. Yet, somehow it’s still a thing.
This post originally appeared in Strong Towns on September 9, 2014. Content licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Wednesday, June 24th, 2015
My latest article is online in City Journal and is a look at the restoration and reopening of the High Bridge in New York City. Part of the original Croton Aqueduct system that first brought plentiful clean water to New York, portions of the High Bridge are the oldest standing bridge in the city. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s worth asking whether, with its $61 million price tag, the High Bridge project was really needed. Strictly speaking, the answer is: No. The structure was in no danger of falling down. And, just a half mile to the north, the Washington Bridge provides a functional, if unpleasant, pedestrian crossing over the Harlem River. Yet, the High Bridge is an important part of New York history and deserves its loving restoration. Spending serious money on outlying neighborhoods that are mostly minority and heavily poor to give their residents a humane environment instead of a minimalistic one shows that New York does care about all its citizens. Great cities don’t just do great things in a sanitized downtown Green Zone for visitors. They create greatness in their workaday neighborhoods, too, with projects that speak not merely to the pragmatic, but to the human spirit. The High Bridge restoration again shows what great commercial success allows a city to do for its citizens.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Here are some additional pictures I took. First, the High Bridge peeking through the trees from the Manhattan heights. You can see both the original stone arch spans and the longer steel arch span.
Embedded seal in the bridge pavement with historical info. There are quite a few of these discussing various aspects of the project.
The neighbors are fans:
Monday, June 22nd, 2015
It’s no secret to readers here that US rail transit construction costs are far out of line vs. other countries. David Schleicher, a law professor at Yale, recently co-authored an article examining some potential reasons why. I crossed paths with David last week and recorded this short podcast with him delving into the matter.
If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.
Tuesday, May 26th, 2015
Last week I linked to an article by Kris Hartley about a Chicago model for global cities. I wasn’t planning to analyze it, but Greg Hinz over at Crain’s did a short writeup, so I decided to share a few thoughts.
Where I’d disagree with Hartley is that I don’t think Chicago is in fact pursuing industry dominance. What’s I’d say is that it’s acting like it already has it. That’s part of the roots of its financial challenges as Chicago’s spending big without the economic base to support it.
Where I agree with Hartley is that industry dominance is only one aspect of global cities. Another crucial part is what economic and other networks a city participates in. I think this network based view is pretty aligned with Sassen too. The idea in Hartley’s piece is that Chicago should identify and cultivate the global networks in which it competes, and build a model based on that. I think Hartley offers a pretty pretty positive take on the city, saying that Chicago doesn’t need to dominate an industry to thrive. In any event, I agree that Chicago should built its own model since it is a different kind of city. Less Big Spend, more networks.
On another topic, Ted Nesi from Providence’s WPRI-TV wrote a two-part online series on the badly botched ridership estimates for the commuter rail extension to Wickford Jct. The first part covers the ridership gap (and how project champion Sen. Jack Reed is still defending this white elephant). The second part is about the high and going losses that will need to be subsidized in perpetuity to keep this thing going. Not only did Rhode Island build an expensive line to a sprawly/ruralish area, it also built a huge parking garage that will cost a ton of money to operate.
Back in 2013 I wrote a piece at Greater City Providence challenging the philosophy of expanding rail to far flung areas where there is no market, and instead said that the state should focus on improving connectivity from Providence and the urbanized north of the state to Boston.
Tuesday, May 5th, 2015
Privatization done right can be a great boon. Done poorly, it can harm the public for decades. We see another example of the latter ongoing in North Carolina (h/t @mihirpshah). The Charlotte Observer reports:
The N.C. Department of Transportation’s contract with a private developer to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 includes a controversial noncompete clause that could hinder plans to build new free lanes on the highway for 50 years.
The clause has long been part of the proposed contract. But it was changed in late 2013 or early 2014 to also include two new free lanes around Lake Norman – an important $431 million project supported by local transportation planners.
Some area officials were surprised that under the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, the developer would likely collect damages if the state added two new general-purpose lanes from Exit 28 to Exit 36 at the lake.
Many of these long term privatization contracts are loaded with “submarine” clauses like non-competes that lurk underwater ready to rise up torpedo the public without warning. Did the people of North Carolina know that they were signing away their right to make public policy for the next 50 years when they did this deal?
What raises serious a red flag is that the clause that incorporated the I-77 added lanes project was added late in the game, which suggests that the current impact were not an accident:
Bill Coxe, a transportation planner with Huntersville, said he doesn’t know who lobbied for the revision. The new language wasn’t part of the draft contract from 2013, but it was added before the final deal was signed in June. “We saw that late in the game,” he said. “We aren’t sure who modified that.”
Mooresville’s representative on an advisory committee that helps make transportation recommendations said she didn’t know about the change to the contract with the developer. Neither did Andrew Grant, a Cornelius assistant town manager who helps shape regional transportation policy.
So many of these deals have less to do with bringing in private capital to finance infrastructure improvements than they do contractually creating a decades long stream of monopoly rents for the contractor.
Chicago got burned when an arbitrator ruled it owed $58 million to the group that leased the city’s lakefront parking garages. The city had promised it would not allow anyone else to build a garage open to the public to compete with the lessee. But it did anyway and they had to pay damages.
Contra the claim in the article that these clauses are necessary to attract investment, simply look around and see that businesses take huge investment risks every single day in markets with no barriers to entry for competitors. You don’t see Walgreens going to city governments and telling them they won’t open a store unless the city promises not to approve a CVS within a two mile radius, for example. We often see retail competitors right across the street from each other
But why invest in the actual marketplace when you can sign a sweetheart deal that grants you a five decade monopoly?
In this case, it appears to be free lanes and toll lanes side by side on the same facility. So there’s some justification for some sort of agreement on the state’s plans for the free lanes. But given that the free lane expansion was already on the books and supported by transportation planners, to have the project de facto killed through a clause slipped into a private contract in a way that does not appear to have been vetted by the public is dubious. If the residents of the area had known the free lane project they were banking on would be basically taken off the table for 50 years, it might have created protests that could potentially derail the contract. So by simply adding a non-compete clause, the state and contractor could do the same thing without stirring up the public until it was too late. It’s all the more reason why there needs to be much, much more scrutiny on the terms of these deals.
Thursday, April 30th, 2015
My latest piece is online over at the Guardian. It’s called “Have we actually reached peak car?”
My piece is quite different from the typical US consumer preference change story. Rather, it draws on research from the UK that’s not widely publicized here in which traffic experts going back as far as the 50s and 60s predicted a saturation in demand for driving. In short, while total driving levels may grow with increasing population, individual (per capita) demand for driving may be at or close to its peak.
Here’s an excerpt:
What’s frequently lost in the debate is that traffic experts themselves predicted a driving peak long ago. Models developed as far back as the 1950s and 60s anticipated that at some point the demand for driving would reach saturation point. A 1974 report in the UK predicted that point would be reached in 2010, a remarkably prescient view. As Goodwin points out: “In fact, the 1970s predictions were official government forecasts by its own research laboratory … The institutional memory collapsed and the generation who remembered or were involved in those forecasts is now only a few elderly specialists, like me. I was as surprised as anybody when I re-examined the old reports: I had no idea that the forecasts were turning out so accurate 30 to 40 years later. Mind you, that does not prove the method is right, of course, but it is food for thought and certainly demonstrates that the idea of eventual saturation is not alien.”
UCL’s David Metz, formerly chief scientist of the UK Department for Transport and author of Peak Car: The Future of Travel, has taken up the saturation theme. “Saturation of daily travel demand is to be expected and is a likely explanation for the observed cessation of per capita growth of personal travel.”
There’s a lot in this piece, so click through to read the whole thing.
Thursday, April 23rd, 2015
My latest post is online over at The Guardian. It’s called “What’s the perfect size for a city?” It is an expanded look at the right scale of regional governance – small box cities, large regional governments, etc. This goes beyond the United States to take a more expanded global view, incorporating some recent findings from the OECD and World Bank. Here’s an excerpt:
“Often, administrative boundaries between municipalities are based on centuries-old borders that do not correspond to contemporary patterns of human settlement and economic activity,” the OECD observed in a recent report. The thinktank argued that governance structures failed to reflect modern realities of metropolitan life into account.
Behind the report’s dry prose lies a real problem. Fragmentation affects a whole range of things, including the economy. The OECD estimates that for regions of equal population, doubling the number of governments reduces productivity by 6%. It recommends reducing this effect with a regional coordinating body, which can also reduce sprawl, increase public transport satisfaction (by 14 percentage points, apparently) and improve air quality.
The World Bank, meanwhile, is worried about the way rapid growth in developing cities has created fragmentation there, too. Metropolises often sprawl well beyond government boundaries: Jakarta, for example, has spread into three separate provinces. The World Bank calls fragmentation “a significant challenge in the East Asia region”.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Thursday, April 16th, 2015
Here’s another post from the London School of Economics’ USA Politics and Policy site. Thanks to the LSE and Julie Cidell for permission to repost – Aaron. ]
Airports are a key part of our globalized world, and calls for their expansion and development are becoming increasingly common. But airports can have negative effects on their local areas– air and noise pollution, and traffic congestion. Do airports’ benefits outweigh their costs to local areas? In new research that examines the 25 largest airports in the U.S., Julie Cidell finds that while airports may drive economic activity within a region, more often than not, that activity is occurring outside the vicinity of the airport. She writes that aspects of an airport’s location, such as nearby industry and transport links often serve as job creators, rather than the airport itself.
It is rare to find an article or report about a major US airport that doesn’t describe it as the “economic engine” of its metropolitan region (see Figure 1). Indeed, there are many studies that indicate a positive connection between increasing air traffic capacity or air traffic and the number of firms in a region. Such studies are commonly used to justify airport expansion and the development of an “aerotropolis” or “airport city” through increasing the airport footprint and/or building new runways and terminals, under the logic that the region as a whole will benefit from the expansion. However, breaking down the connection between transportation and economic development across time and/or space can lead to different results. For example, in peripheral European regions, the causality arrow goes from air traffic to economic development, but in core cities, it’s the other way around.
We know that the negative effects of airports—air pollution, noise pollution, labor competition, and traffic congestion—occur at a local scale, within 5-6 miles of the airport boundary. While the argument is often made that “you knew there was an airport there when you moved,” that argument is usually wrong for two reasons: a) many airport-adjacent neighborhoods predate jet aircraft, and b) despite their vast, fixed infrastructure, airports move. For example, a study of Phoenix concluded that it was the airport and its disamenities that moved into residential neighborhoods, not the other way around. Nevertheless, very few studies of the air transportation-economic development relationship are broken down at finer scales to enable an equitable comparison to the negative effects of airports.
That was the purpose of my recent study. I focused on the largest 25 airports in the US and carried out two different kinds of spatial analyses as described below. For both, I found that more often than not, the economic development an airport brings to its region is not only equally spatially clustered as the negative environmental effects, but that development is occurring somewhere other than the vicinity of the airport. In other words, airport neighbors are not sacrificing for the good of the region as a whole, but for other neighborhoods equivalent in size to their own, raising questions of spatial equity regarding facilities that draw on a great deal of government money and yet are not producing benefits region-wide.
Airports As Urban Infrastructure
Previous studies have argued that airports are significant job generators using a simple methodology: drawing circles of 2.5, 5, and 10 mile radii around the airport, counting the number of jobs within, and comparing that number to the central business district (CBD). I used the same methodology to draw rings around two major pieces of infrastructure found in every US metropolitan area: the largest shopping mall and the largest wastewater treatment plant. I also chose the point in the metropolitan area directly opposite from the airport across the CBD to act as a control. I then compared those numbers to the jobs in the CBD (all data were taken from the 2007 US Economic Census), with the results in Figure 2, below.
Surprisingly, at all distances studied, a wastewater treatment plant is a more important “job generator” than the airport. Is a wastewater treatment plant therefore the “economic engine” of its region? Such a facility generates relatively few jobs, either directly or indirectly. Presumably, this finding does not have to do with the characteristics of the plant itself as a job generator, but with its surroundings. Such plants are often located on major waterways and can be considered a locally unwanted land use much as the airport. For both these reasons, they are likely to be surrounded by industrial land rather than residential. Similarly, of course, one could argue that it is not the airport qua airport that is generating jobs, but rather other features of its immediate location such as ground transportation access—features which potentially could be reproduced in other locations without the hazards of noise and air pollution.
Regional Spatial Analyses
The second part of this study focused on the specific categories of firms that have been shown to be attracted to metropolitan areas by air service—professional and administrative services—and determined their spatial distribution in comparison to the airport. Figure 3 is an example of how the four different spatial analyses look in one metro region, plus the major pieces of infrastructure I discussed earlier.
The weighted mean center analyses of key infrastructure and professional services, indicated that for only 8 of the 25 airports studied (including Phoenix as pictured), that the center is within 5-6 miles of the airport. In other words, for two-thirds of the airports studied, the economic benefits are occurring at a greater distance from the airport than the negative effects. The standard deviational ellipses showed that this distance might not be too far: 76 percent of the airports were within the ellipse, suggesting that even if airports are not in close proximity to the center of airport-related development, they are within one standard deviation of it. However, that distribution might not be even across space. Local and global Moran’s I analyses showed that professional service firms and their associated jobs are clustered in space—but of the 25 airports studied, only 8 were in or adjacent to a “hot spot” of these firms. Six were in a “cold spot.” The airport may be driving economic activity within the region—but more often than not, that activity is occurring outside the vicinity of the airport.
The goal of my research was to empirically explore the frequently-made statement that airports are the “economic engines” of their regions. There are two parts to this: to what extent are airports drivers of local employment as compared to other large pieces of infrastructure, and what is the spatial distribution of the firms brought to a region by its air service? In both cases, I found that the “economic engine” claims are probably overstated, at least when we compare their spatial distribution to the distribution of the airport’s negative effects. Other major pieces of infrastructure such as shopping malls and wastewater treatment plants have as many or more jobs in their vicinity as airports do. The professional services firms that have been shown to be attracted to metropolitan regions are clustered in space rather than being evenly spread throughout the region, and those clusters are more often than not outside the range of where negative environmental and economic effects occur.
Any large piece of infrastructure, whether an airport, a shopping mall, or a wastewater treatment plant, will have positive and negative effects both within the immediate vicinity and across the entire region. Nevertheless, such infrastructure has to be sited somewhere. Taking into account the spatial distribution of that infrastructure’s effects, both positive and negative, can make clearer the questions of who benefits and who pays—as well as what might be done to offset the costs for those who suffer the negative effects of such infrastructure without reaping the economic benefits.
This article is based on the paper ‘The role of major infrastructure in subregional economic development: an empirical study of airports and cities’, in the Journal of Economic Geography.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
About the Author
Julie Cidell – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Julie Cidell is an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where her work focuses on two main areas: the political economy of transportation, and green buildings and public policy. She has also worked as a transportation engineer in Boston and taught physical geography in northern and southern California
This post originally appeared at the London School of Economics USA Politics and Policy site on November 4, 2014.