Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Interregional High Speed Rail: the myth of the 400 mile cap

Recently, we began to consider interregional high speed rail, or, in other words, high speed rail spanning more than the current corridors proposed. Before we delve in to details, it's time to dispel some myths. The first one is that high speed rail is not competitive over distances of 400 miles.

No, I'm not making that up. Obviously, as distances become longer, air travel becomes more competitive, since when they are flying at cruise level, planes are faster than trains. However, making up a number, in this case 400 miles, is just not true. The problem is that very important economists writing for very important newspapers (in this case, Ed Glaeser for the Times and Robert Samuelson for the WaPo) make stuff up, and because they have degrees from places like Harvard, people believe them.

Both writers pieces have been thoroughly discredited (and there are many more such posts, like this one), but no one has mentioned one of Samuelson's rather-blatant misrepresentations. In his piece, he states as fact (without any source, of course), that
Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can't compete with planes.
. This is rather interesting. Why? because not only does he fail to mention places where trains compete comfortably with planes in a 400-500 mile corridor, but he doesn't mention either a 500+ mile corridor where a train line doesn't compete or offer any rationale about why they couldn't.

So, I'll do his dirty work for him. First of all, let's find a city pair with high speed rail of greater than 400 miles. Say, Paris to Marseille. By air, it's 406 miles, by road, it's about 482. Either way, it's in Samuelson's not-really-competitive range. Here's the interesting thing. Of the air-rail market on the Paris-Marseille route, the TGV has taken 69% of the traffic. That's up from 22% before completion of the line. I think that's competitive.

In fact, it's time, not distance, that governs competitiveness, and the time is definitely more than three hours. According to SNCF's Guillaume Pepy
High-speed rail has historically captured the major share of combined air/rail traffic along routes where train journeys are under 3 hours. But this is changing, says SNCF's Pepy: "With air travel becoming more complicated and increasing airport congestion, high-speed rail now wins 50% of the traffic where rail journeys are 4.5 hours or less," he said. On the Paris-Perpignan route (5 hrs by train), TGV has 51% of the air/rail market, on Paris-Toulon (4 hrs) 68%.

It seems that, even for trips of four or five hours, high speed rail can be competitive. In that amount of time, a train averaging 160 mph could cover 640 to 800 miles. If that is the case, then a lot more corridors are plausible for consideration for high speed rail including a route between the East Coast and the Midwest. Especially between cities with congested airports. In other words, New York and Chicago.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The strange tale of the 21, 53 and 63

This was originally posted as a comment on the Minneapolis Transit blog about increasing limited bus service.

1. Cutting service on the Selby section of the line to every 26-28 minutes is probably not a good idea. The line is rather well-patronized along that section with the current 20 minute headways and reducing it beyond that would make it much less useful (I think it should have more frequent headways, every 15 minutes, anyway). There's a lot of land along Selby which is either vacant or parking, and better transit service might serve as a catalyst for redevelopment. A better economy would help, too, of course.

2. The 21D is a farce. Supposedly it was wrangled by Saint Thomas in order to have better transit, but it is usually empty until it clears the river. The worst part is, however, that the 20 minute headways on the 21D match the 20 minute headways on the 63 which ends at the same stop, but no one at MetroTransit has ever thought of interlining (I asked). How much sense would that make? Lots. Grand Avenue's line would no longer dead-end at Saint Thomas, providing access from Grand to the LRT (to Minneapolis and the airport) and Uptown.

Furthermore, of the buses that run west from Saint Paul more than twice an hour (the 3, 16, 21, 63, 74 and 54), the 63 is the only one without a western "anchor." The 3 and 16 run to the U and downtown Minneapolis, the 21 to Uptown and the 54 and 74 to the Light Rail. The 63 ends in a residential neighborhood in Saint Paul. Finally, going from Grand Avenue to Downtown Minneapolis requires two transfers (unless you go east to Saint Paul, not feasible from the western part of the route), which is time consuming and inconvenient. Interlining with the 21D would solve many problems with little or no additional service required (except, perhaps, when the 21D doesn't run at rush hour). Running the 63 in to Minneapolis seems almost intuitive. I guess that's why it hasn't been done.

3. The bus stops along the 21 line from Uptown to Hiawatha (and in most of the Twin Cities) are way too close together. Since there is often someone getting on at every block, the bus winds up pulling in and out of every stop. No wonder it is scheduled to complete this section of route in 25 minutes, at a speed of less than 10 mph. If bus stops were halved few people would notice the longer walk (still generally under 1/10 miles) and the buses would be speedier. Plus, what it its real utility when it doesn't run at rush hours?!

4. Finally, the jog to University is very helpful for people who want to transfer there, but very time-consuming for through-riders on the 21. Perhaps the midday 53 could, instead of using the Interstate from Snelling to downtown, use Selby, with stops every 1/2 mile at major cross streets (Hamline, Lexington, Victoria, Dale, Western).

When this was changed some time around 2004 (from the historic Selby-Lake route dating back to the streetcar era), it increased the utility for travel to University and a transfer to the 16, but decreased the utility for cross-town trips by adding to the already-long run time of the bus. Considering how many people transfer to and from the 21 at University, it seems like it would almost make sense to have one leg of the 21 run on Selby to University and Snelling, and then west on University to Minneapolis, and another to run on University from Saint Paul to Snelling, and then west on Marshall and Lake to Uptown. Better 53 service would, of course, help as well, and just cutting off that jog, with half a dozen lights and a mile of extra route, would cut service times.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Interregional High Speed Rail: mapping its genesis

This topic was raised by an IM discussion I was having with my dad as he sat on the tarmac on a plane in Saint Louis:
Dad: My flight has now been delayed a total of 2:35 on account of, they say, air traffic control in Boston because of weather.
Me: Hey question: if you could take a 6 hour train ride from Saint Louis to Boston (feasible, albeit barely) would you rather do that than deal with these airplane shenanigans?
Dad: You betcha. There ought to be a 90-minute hop from here to Chi, and then the eastbound super-express. What route would you propose for that?
Ask and you shall receive.

Before going in to the route (in a separate post to come later), it would be interesting to see what has been proposed for high speed rail routes, and what the genesis of such proposals has been. There have been several, and it is actually quite interesting how they have evolved. What I am going to try to illustrate here is that high speed rail has too-often been touted as a regional solution; it is really an interregional solution as well. Thus, I am consistently flummoxed that few maps show an interest in an East Coast-to-Chicago trunk line, paralleling one of the most congested and delay-prone air routes in the world. (Mention O'Hare and JFK, Newark or LaGuardia in the same breath and seasoned travelers will curse or faint.)

So, now to the maps. I've tried to link them in as best I can, but my apologies if some of the links break: some of these maps are rather old. We'll start way back in the year 2000, when the Bureau of Transportation Statistics published an early draft of an HSR network. It should be noted that this was eons ago in the life cycle of high speed rail. Gas was cheap, airlines were profitable (ha!), and the Acela hadn't yet run from Boston to Washington.

In general, this looks pretty similar to some of the more recent maps. So it's pretty much a base. Which is problematic: once people have drawn lines on maps, it's often hard to redraw them, no matter how little sense they make. Luckily, as a base, most of the nonsense here comes from connections not made, like not linking networks in Jacksonville and Tampa, Houston and Austin or DFW, and Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It's the last of these which, as we'll see, is somewhat persistent.

High speed rail didn't come up much during the Bush Administration (which was preoccupied with throwing enough money to build these entire systems show here at the Iraq money pit), but a new map (from the DOT) was offered up in 2005, which was a general template for the next several years. And it was ... pretty similar to the previous one.

It was being used by several sources as late as this year. In other words, from 2000 to 2009 there were basically no changes made.

Finally, the Obama administration, which has now promised money to high speed rail, released their own map, and, well, didn't rock too many boats. Their "Vision for High Speed Rail in America" is not much more than a couple of tweaks of the existing map. And still, ten years later, regions are, for some reason, not linked.

In the mean time, there have been several regional agencies which have come up with their own maps. The two most prominent are in the Midwest and California. California's map is relatively simple (although minor changes, such as which pass to use to get from the Bay Area to the Central Valley, have been the cause of much contention) and very nifty on their website. The Midwest map, which is less further along, has seen a bit more flux.

The first map released by the Midwest High Speed Rail authority was rather modest, vague and, frankly, not really high speed rail (with top speeds of 110 mph):

That map disappeared from their server earlier this year (the Web Archive grabbed it, however) and a new, more ambitious one arrived, along with the news that they'd push for 220 mph service from Chicago to Saint Louis (ooh, good idea):

This is actually one of the better maps I've seen. It might be overly ambitious, but it does show the high speed routes to major cities, with connections to the east coast, which have been missing previously. Of course, there is no straight line across the Midwest from Pittsburgh, but at least the network realizes that it should be interregional.

Finally, there are a bunch of maps created by various blogs and lobbying groups for high speed rail networks.

The Transport Politic blog offers:

Richard Florida talks about Megaregions and high speed rail without putting up a specific map (a good idea, perhaps)

But others take that map and run with it.

Finally, with that map as a base, a lobbying group called the United States High Speed Rail Association has an ambitious, 17,000 mile network.

So what's the takeaway? Well, the first is that nothing is really set in stone (except, perhaps, in California). But the second is that only more recently has anyone started looking beyond the corridors first set forth in 2000 (and, presumably, even before then). Which is good. Because even the newest maps, none of which have the backing of the government, have some issues with linking together longer corridors. Both the USHSR's map and the one from the Transport Politic go through Philly, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Toledo on their way from New York to Chicago, adding enough mileage to negate the use of the corridor for longer distances.

Update: America 2050 has posted a study that actually has some basis to it, and the map they create is probably the most sensible yet.. The Transport Politic thinks so, too.

In any case, these maps should be refined: a strong case could be made for the competitiveness of a high-speed line from New York (with branches to Philadelphia, D.C. and even Boston) to Chicago (with branches to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Columbus and other cities). Considering the dismal state of air service between the first and third largest cities in the country, and the horrors of getting from the CBD of each (the two largest downtowns in the nation) to the airports, a modern, 200 mph line could definitely hold its own.

A future post will discuss this.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cash for clunkers: proof that a gas tax would work?

There has been a lot of debate as to the overall efficacy of the Car Allowance Rebate System, (legislators love acronyms) colloquially known as "Cash for Clunkers." On a few subjects there isn't much contention: it has been "successful" in getting people to buy new, and generally more efficient, cars. In other words, if people have a financial incentive to trade up to a more efficient car, they will do so. Especially if the incentive is (probably) set too high.

So, I'm not down on Cash for Clunkers. First of all, it's proof that a government program can work. It was quick and effective and probably stimulative (more so than environmental)--most of the cars in the program were made in the United States. That's good in that it may help convince some anti-government types that government is not always the problem. Second, it is not increasing the number of cars on the road. While it is certainly not perfect, a far more worrisome development would have been a program that mailed out checks to people to buy new cars; a program which I could see government embracing. Third, it can't be debated that the new cars on the road are, in fact, less polluting than the current ones. While not everyone went out and bought the newest Prius (although many are), a 60% gain in efficiency is nothing to scoff at. Even if these cars may be driven more than their predecessors (since they'll be new and reliable and, well, not clunkers) there will likely be an overall decrease in emissions.

On the other hand, the program could have, obviously, been better administered. First of all, $3500 to $4500 is a lot of money. I thought about buying a clunker, trading it in, buying a new car and turning around and selling that--even with the title transfers, time involved and money lost to depreciation, I'd probably clear a couple grand. (I'm not sure, however, if I could have qualified with a new-to-me clunker.) In any case, smaller sums--$1000 to $2000--would have likely resulted in many sales but not the veritable run on the bank that car dealers have recently seen. In addition, there was no provision for people with clunkers who wanted to get out of car ownership completely. The only way they could do so would be to trade in the clunker, buy a new car, and turn around and sell it. Maybe the next program should be that if you bring in an old car, the government will give you a year-long transit pass for the agency of your choice and a $1000 credit for your local car sharing agency. This, too, would cost less than $3500, and dramatically reduce emissions and the number of cars in the road. (Yes, I have a bit of a vested interest in the second half of this proposal.)

While the transit-car sharing idea is a bit of a pipe dream, politically, one which is less of one would be a better-graduated system. The CARS program had hard cutoffs. If you car gets tenth of a mile per gallon over the limit, you get nothing. A tenth less and nearly $5000 can be in your pocket. Furthermore, you get this money whether you upgrade to a still-overpowered sedan or SUV getting in the low 20s or a Prius (or similar) getting twice that. So what would make more sense would be a graduated system. Trade in an 18 mpg car and go to a 22 mpg and we'll give you a few hundred dollars for your trouble. Go from a 14 mpg SUV to a Prius (or a similarly "clean" car), and you can cash in on the full $4500. Or more.

That's all well and good and probably won't happen. Nor will credits for transit commuters, cyclists and others who choose not to drive. It costs too much money and isn't terribly stimulative and probably doesn't have the votes. Furthermore, the CARS program was very simple. Your vehicle either does or does not qualify, and you can get either $3500 or $4500. For these others, we'd need charts. And if you put mathematics in between an American consumer and a deal, they're far less likely to do it. In other words, if you make it as confusing as doing your taxes, people are going to like it about as much.

There is a relatively simple way to achieve nearly all of these objectives. It would require little administration, since the methods of collection and distribution are already in place (and have been for years, and work fine). Yet, for a variety of reasons, it is a political third rail. It is, of course, the gas tax.

The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. That's right. 18.4 cents. Most states have their own taxes on top (Alaska is the only holdout) raising the total tax as high as 60¢, in New York State. The federal portion was last raised in 1991. Yup, 18 years ago. Since then, prices have increased 58%. Had the gas tax kept up, it would be 29¢ today. The gas tax in 1991, however, accounted for about 17% of the cost of a gallon of gas (at that time, gas, with the tax, cost about $1.20). If gas taxes were based on percentages, they would be about 43¢, and last summer would have crept to nearly 70¢.

So, it's obvious that gas taxes are low. And it's also pretty obvious that there is some climate stuff going on, and that having people use less gas would be beneficial. In addition, using less gas would keep prices lower and supplies more stable, as well as encouraging energy independence. These are all good externalities, but, perhaps most importantly, the gas tax, if it is adjusted for some rural populations and low income communities, is a very efficient way to raise tax revenues.

Mention raising the gas tax and you'll hear two responses. One is "it's not politically possible." The other is "it's regressive." The first is, sadly, perhaps true. The second is not, and, particularly when it is offset with some sort of tax credit, potentially a straw man. When the tax was last raised, 18 years ago, this was debunked. In several manners, it has to do with how you look at gasoline: whether it is a necessity or a luxury. If it is a necessity, then, yes, the tax is likely somewhat regressive. This is the reason we don't place punitive taxes on clothing and food: you need both to survive. Gasoline, however, is a different story. In New York City, 55% of the residents do without a car. Yes, it's a special case. But is there anywhere where more than half the residents do without food or clothing? In several other major cities, more than a quarter of households don't have cars. For some it is an economic decision. For others, it is about lifestyle. But it is rather obvious that, especially in areas with decent public transport, owning a car is not a necessity.

And for these people, which number in the millions, a gas tax is not regressive at all. Many of them are the same people who the highway lobby defends; the people for whom a gas tax will be painfully regressive. However, as long as they aren't driving a gas tax will have no effect, although it might drive more people towards transit use and increase service levels.

The other worrisome issue are those people who live in rural areas. For them, higher gas taxes will result in higher costs, because living at a low density tends to require a lot of driving. And for farmers, a rise in gas prices will create a rise in production costs, for both mechanized agriculture and transportation. There are two ways of dealing with this issue. One is direct subsidies to growers to buy cheaper fuel, although such a system would be fraught with fraud and inefficiencies. (If we'll sell you 10 gallons of cheap gas, is there much of an incentive to economize and only use nine?) A simpler way, of course, is to pass the costs along: food prices might rise a bit, but everyone would have increased costs, and everyone would pay. In addition, there would be a fine incentive to save fuel, which would both reduce costs and be more environmental. For those who live rurally for the lifestyle, they've made a choice to live a car-dependent (and fuel-dependent) lifestyle. It's only fair that they pay more.

Finally, there is a way to make sure that a gas tax would both not hit the poor especially hard and be stimulative as well: return the extra money spent on gas, in advance, as a tax credit. Estimate the amount of gas used per year (recently about 140 billion gallons) and the amount of money that, say, a $1 gas tax increase would raise (with less use, about $120 billion). Knowing that that revenue increase was in store, the government could turn around and write a $500 check to every tax payer in the country at the beginning of the year. A nice letter could be enclosed:
We know that we're increasing your gas tax. Here's $500. If you need it for gas, use it for gas. If you want to buy a more efficient car, here's some help to buy a new car. If you are interested in local transit service, here's a website where you can find out more. Here's information about car sharing, car pooling and other fuel saving techniques, too.

Oh, and enjoy the $500!

People worried about fuel costs could save the money for the year. Many others would spend the money in ways that would stimulate the economy. Others would, in the face of higher gas prices, use it for transit passes. And it would be a very progressive tax rebate: it would benefit those at lower income levels far more than those at the top.

In the long run we might, as a society, want to use this money to fund more effective transportation policies. Maybe the amount would decrease by $50 a year as people got more used to higher taxes, by driving more efficient vehicles or driving less. Any extra money could be put towards funding expansion and operation of transit agencies, and building new energy and transportation networks (as the current gas tax is earmarked for transportation). In the short run, as has been discussed in several places (including liberal blogs), consensus is that we can't get everyone out of their cars tomorrow. But instead of expanding the Cash for Clunkers program, and making it more top-heavy and unwieldy, a gas tax would likely give us better results with easier implementation (since it's already implemented).

And if everyone were promised a $500 check from the government, it just might be possible.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Central Corridor: a primer

One of my long-term projects, and when I say long term I mean long term, is to photograph the Central Corridor—between Minneapolis and Saint Paul—block by block, at various stages during its construction. I'll post some of the photos here, although I assume that the whole avenue will be something along the lines of 150 photographs, and I'll probably host those separately. I'm waiting on a wider-angle lens (24mm) which will let me more easily convey the street, especially considering its width in Saint Paul. It is my hope that, once the project is completed, photos can be taken from the same spots in the future for a before-and-after effect.

But before we dive in to a look at the Central Corridor—as it now stands—it would be helpful to have a quick (ha) primer on its history and some of the controversy towards bring fixed-guideway transit back to University. It helps to go all the way back to the founding of the Twin Cities. The area was inhabited by the Mdewakanton, a band of Dakota, before western settlement, which began in earnest in the early 1800s (there were traders and explorers before then, but none stayed). Fort Snelling was set up on the bluff overlooking the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, and still stands, but settlement never concentrated there. Instead, two urban centers developed, each with a different purpose. Saint Paul was built at a bend in the Mississippi and was the northernmost port on the river—north of Saint Paul the river enters a deep-walled gorge and a 50-foot waterfall—not conducive to navigation. With steamboats as the main transportation mode of the early- and mid-1800s, the city prospered.

Minneapolis, too, did quite well. While Saint Paul was the northernmost (or, perhaps, westernmost) connection to the east, Minneapolis became, in a way, the easternmost connection to the west, because it had something almost no other city in the Midwest had: water power. Between the Appalachians and the Rockies, there are many large rivers branching off from the Mississippi (in addition to the big river itself), many named after states: the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and others. Most of these, however, ply the plains, and, if they fall in elevation do so gradually. Not so for the Mississippi north of Saint Paul. After running in a wide, flat valley for its length, the old glacial outflows which provide that valley—the Saint Croix and Minnesota—diverge and the current main river climbs up through the gorge. Originally, the river fell over a ledge of limestone near the current confluence, and slowly crept north, eroding a few feet each year. This was stopped by the damming and control of the falls in the 1860s, although not for navigation—but for 111 vertical feet of water power. From across the growing wheat fields of the west, grain was shipped to Minneapolis to be milled and shipped east—where else was there available power?

(As an aside, it is often said that Saint Paul is the westernmost Eastern city and Minneapolis is the easternmost Western city. Saint Paul has narrower streets and is hemmed in by topography; most neighborhoods are up on hills. Minneapolis, on the other hand, is above the river, and spreads out across the plains. Perhaps this is a manifestation of from where the cities drew their influence.)

The Twin Cities are separated by about ten miles, and once railroads came in, there were services between the cities, the Short Line was built to help facilitate commuter-type services between the cities. However, while railroads have continued to play important roles in the Twin Cities' economy even to this day (although less so than in the past), short distance passenger rail has not—the cities never developed commuter rail type services; those were supplied by streetcars. In 1890, the first "interurban" (so-called because it went served both Minneapolis and Saint Paul; it did not resemble a typical interurban) opened along University Avenue. The streetcars put the railroads out of the short-haul business between the cities, and within a few years the Twin Cities had a fully-built streetcar system service most main streets every fifteen minutes—or less. On University (and several other main lines) rush hour service was almost constant.

Low in-city density, little competition from mainline railroads, and relatively little crossover between the two cities (which generally had separate streetcar lines each focused on the downtown), however, meant that there was never impetus to built higher-speed or higher-capacity transportation. With the infatuation with buses of the 1950s, the Twin Cities were quick to rip up the streetcar lines, even where patronage was still high on some lines. Yes, the were shenanigans with proxy battles and speculation about the involvement of General Motors, but even if they lines had continued in private ownership, there was little to keep them from being torn out, like most other cities in the country. The only cities to keep their streetcars had major obstacles in the way of running buses: Boston and Philadelphia had tunnels through their central cities which would not accommodate buses (and nearly all of Boston's existing lines run on private medians), San Francisco had several tunnels and private rights of way on existing lines, the Saint Charles Line in New Orleans runs in a streets median (or "Neutral Ground") and Pittsburgh has streetcar tunnels. In every other city in the country—and there were hundreds—the streetcars disappeared. There's little reason to expect that the Twin Cities, looking at street rebuilds in the time of rubber tires, would have behaved any differently, even without the goons who made it the first major city to switch to buses.

Speculation aside, it would be fifty years until rail transit ran again. The Central Corridor, mostly on University, was the obvious choice for the first corridor, from both a macro-political and planning standpoint. Politically, the line serves Saint Paul, the capitol, the University of Minnesota, and Downtown Minneapolis. Planning, it serves a major transportation corridor with inefficient bus service, high ridership, and the ability to spur more development. Logistically, the line from Minneapolis to the Mall of America, via the airport, was a bit easier to build, on a cancelled expressway right-of-way. And after years of planning and machinations, it was.

Between the two downtowns, however, there is still only bus service. There are three options: the 16 runs every ten minutes, all day, every day. It is very, very slow. There are stops every block, and since it traverses low-to-middle income, dense neighborhoods, it often winds up stopping every block, often for only one or two passengers. Most of the day, the trip—little more than ten miles—takes more than an hour. There is no signal priority, no lane priority, and the bus is far too slow to attract ridership from anyone in a hurry. A second option, which runs mostly at rush hour, is the 50, which stops every half mile or so and runs about 15 minutes faster than the 16. Then there's the 94, which runs express between the downtowns (with one stop at Snelling Avenue) every fifteen minutes along I-94, which is a few blocks south of University. However, it poorly serves the corridor itself, and is not immune to the rush hour congestion which builds going in to each downtown, often as early as 3:00 p.m.

In other words, there's no fast, reliable transit connection along University between the Downtowns. The buses are crowded and slow. Despite frequent service, the avenue has a lot of land use poorly suited to its location between several of the major employment centers of the area. Closer to the University, it has been more built up, with some good, dense condo developments, but there are still huge tracts of light industry, unused surface parking lots, big box and strip malls and (mostly) abandoned car dealerships. Thus, it is primed for redevelopment, and, with the coming of fixed rail, will likely (hopefully) change dramatically, once the light rail can provide frequent service to both downtowns. The run time is scheduled to be 39 minutes, much of which will be spent navigating downtowns. Outside the downtowns, nowhere will be more than 30 minutes from either downtown, or the University, any time of day. It will be very accessible. And it will like transform the area dramatically. That's why I want to photograph it before it all starts.

Next: The Central Corridor: controversy (or: "why is this taking so long?!")