Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

Helmets and Bike Safety

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

The New York Times and the Boston Globe recently published op-ed pieces on bicycle safety.  The  Times talked about how helmets so discourage biking that their net effect is negative on health.  The Globe had a number of recommendations on how to improve safety, but they were almost all focused on bike riders, not on improving the environment.  Here are some relevant stats:

Number of bike related fatalities is about 800 per year. Note that this includes ALL bike accidents including off trail biking, not just biking on the street.

A study of bike related visits to emergency rooms in 2009 found 51,000 motor vehicle related and 368,000 non motor vehicle emergency room visits in the US in 2009.

Intracranial injuries accounted for 21,000 or 5% of visits, the sixth highest rank.  Skull and face fractures accounted for 6,600 visits, 2% of the total.  Some proportion of both of these would not be related to helmet wearing.  However, intracranial injuries resulting in hospitalizations were 5,800, 21% of hospitalizations and the number one reason for hospitalization.  So these tend to be more serious.

Head injuries are important, but they are not the overwhelming reason for injuries or hospitalizations.

Analysis of the Boston Dudley-Downtown Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Using the BRT Scorecard put together by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, I analyzed the Silver Line bus rapid transit line between Dudley, in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood and downtown.  There is another Silver Line in Boston that connects South Station with the airport and selected South Boston locations, but the two segments are not connected (that’s a whole other issue).

 

Bottom line:  17 points out of 100.  Hardly qualifies as a bus rapid transit at all.

 

 

Here are my detailed findings.

 

Item                             Maximum Points           Silver Line Points            Explanation

 

Off Board Fares                                    7                                  0                      Pay as you board system

Multiple routes                         4                                  4                      Line has two end points                                                                                                                          downtown

Peak Frequency                        4                                  0                      Assumes 10 minute frequency

Off Peak Frequency                  3                                  0                      Sometimes 20 minute frequency

Express runs                             3                                  0                      None

Central control of runs               3                                  0                      If it’s there, it’s not working

Corridor in top ten bus              2                                  2                      It is highly used

ridership

Hours of operation                    2                                  2                      Service runs on weekends and                                                                                                               evenings

Multi corridor network              2                                  0                      None existing or planned

Busway alignment                    7                                  0                      Along curb (worst place for it)

Segregated alignment                7                                  1                      Colored pavement (mostly)

Intersection treatment                6                                  0                      Nothing to deal with cars                                                                                                               turning into the busway

Passing lanes at stations                        4                                  0                      None. buses bunch up

Emission standards                   4                                  4                      Natural gas buses

Stations set back from               3                                  0                      None meet the 120 foot standard

intersections

Center stations                          3                                  0                      None

Pavement quality                      2                                  1                      About half have been improved

Platform level boarding             6                                  0                      None

Safe and comfortable stations    3                                  0                      All are as bad as they can be

Number of doors                       3                                  3                      Not sure of criteria, giving                                                                                                              benefit of the doubt here

Docking bays and substops       2                                  0                      None on system

Sliding doors                            1                                  0                      None

Branding                                  3                                  3                      Good job on this

Passenger information               2                                  2                      Approaching times well                                                                                                                         announced

Universal access                       3                                  0                      None

Integration with system             3                                  1                      Not great

Pedestrian access                      3                                  3                      Easy to access stations

Bicycle parking                         2                                  0                      Spotty at best

Bicycle lanes                            2                                  1                      Some but not entire route

Bicycle sharing integration        1                                  0                      Only a few stops have stations

Low speeds                              -10                               0                      Unable to evaluate

Low peak time utilization          -5                                 0                      Crowded buses

Enforcement of busway             -5                                 -5                     ALWAYS cars parked in                                                                                                               busway

Gap between bus and platform   -5                                 -5                     Measure it in feet

Station encroaches on busway   -3                                 0                      No real station infrastructure

Overcrowding                           -3                                 0                      Seems overcrowded but not sure                                                                                                          of metric

Maintenance                             -3                                 0                      Not a problem

Distance between stations         -2                                 0                      Not a problem

 

 

 

Observations of a bike sharing enthusiast

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

As an avid user of Boston’s Hubway bike sharing system, I have the following observations:

1. Location is critical. I won’t walk more than a few blocks to or from a bike sharing station. If I have to walk further, it’s not worth it.

2. Using the system vastly increases productivity. I spend much less time in transit.

3. Most users don’t use helmets. (But as a public health person, I do – not that I don’t have concerns about public policy that focuses on helmets)

4. The website and app showing the status of docking stations are essential for using the service. Otherwise, one risks not finding the bike station or there may be no bikes or docking places

5. Using the system is way cool. People smile and wave at you when you are on one if te bikes.

6. The bikes are clunky. But that adds to the physical activity benefits. .

7. Bike sharing is no substitute for expensive infrastructure improvements. A cycle track is better than  bike sharing.

Congrats to the City of Boston for making this service available.

Transportation funding

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Here is an excerpt from my textbook, The Built Environment and Public Health.  The issue is how we fund mass transit in this country.  Highways are funded as a block grant, more or less.  The issue is how to divide the pot of money and localities don’t have to do much more than spend the cash.  In contrast, we make mass transit go through hoops.  Keep in mind that the gas tax, both local and national, pays only a fraction of the total cost of our roads.  This is not even counting the environmental impacts.  Here is what the textbook says:

Transit funding by the federal government uses a different set of procedures than that for highways. Money for highway construction is distributed using a formula that includes population, land area, and other factors. States and localities more or less get the money from the government by right. The only question is how many total dollars have been set aside in the latest highway bill. In contrast, mass transit is funded by a much more cumbersome process. For example, local transportation authorities have to apply to the federal government in a competitive process. Extensive documentation for the application is required and the application process includes an assessment regarding whether revenues are sufficient to maintain and operate the new transportation infrastructure. Funding for mass transit in recent years has been set at no more than 20% of the total federal transportation construction budget, an increase from earlier decades when funding for mass transit from the federal government was essentially zero. Thus transit funds are much more scarce than highway funds and much more difficult to secure.  Therefore, local governments have to find alternatives to fund capital and maintenance costs of transit.

Is walkability a civil right?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

The blog is back!

Due to a recent eye problem (I’m getting better – thanks for your concern), I have gone six months without being able to drive or ride a bike.  Walking is the main way I get around these days and Boston, despite its reputation as a walking city, is not always that easy to navigate by foot and public transportation.  But my world is rich enough in destinations: work, shopping, etc., that not being able to drive is a disadvantage, but not life stopping.  I can take the MBTA, Boston’s public transportation system, to many places that are too far to walk.  For a person with limited vision, Boston is not a city of limits.

But what percentage of the United States is accessible to those who cannot drive?  A very tiny percentage.  Sure there are rural areas that it would be nearly impossible to make accessible, I don’t know how public policy beyond providing transportation services could be of assistance here. But how many urban areas, big cities, in this country are off limits to those of us who cannot drive?  What about those who can’t afford cars? This seems to me to be a civil rights issue.  Shouldn’t our dense cities be accessible to those with limited eyesight?

The radical part of me wants to sue someone to make the Unite States more accessible (actually, what is more mainstream American than taking someone to court).  I am not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to the specific legal and constitutional issues involved.  But shouldn’t there be something about the equal protection clause or the Americans With Disabilities Act to take care of this?  Should there be a constitutional right to access?  I’m not a dreamer, I realize there is not a great chance of anyone ever taking this on and winning a case before the Supreme Court.  But wouldn’t it be a better country if we made walkability a civil right issue?

The problem with Bus Rapid Transit

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Because of its lower cost, many cities and transit authorities are looking at bus rapid transit as a way of promoting mass transit. There was also the example of Curitiba, Brazil which successfully implemented a comprehensive BRT system. This is been followed by similar systems in Mexico City and elsewhere. BRT received a major boost in the United States during the Bush administration, which promoted as a more flexible and cheaper alternative to light rail which was becoming more popular across the US.

I have to admit that my feelings about BRT systems will be forever compromised by my experience with Boston’s silver line bus rapid transit. As implemented, BRT has been anything but rapid and illustrative everything that’s wrong with transit. The silver line was meant as a replacement for the old orange line elevated which was moved a rebuilt as a subway line were Massachusetts decided not to build a new highway connector into the city from the south west. At first the neighborhoods were promised a light rail line, so they thought. But eventually the MBTA came up with a bus solution as an alternative because it was cheaper.

There are many problems with the silver line BRT and they are indicative of the problems of PRT as implemented in the United States. For one thing, it is not well integrated into the rest of the system. There is a silver line spur that goes from South Station all the way to the airport, but that’s birth does not connect to the spirit echoes to Roxbury. The airports spur does have direct access from the subway. The Roxbury spur does not, and actually consists of two alternatives one that drops you off across the street from South Station and about a five-minute walk from the subway. The other drops you off a couple blocks from the downtown Crossing subway station. There also other places where one can transfer from the silver line to the subway but none of these offer the chance to do so without going through a turnstile.

The silver line was supposed to have a system to change the traffic signals to green for the buses, but for some reason, this has never been activated (or used).  When going to the airport, it is regularly the case that the bus will sit for a couple of  minutes waiting for a green light while no cars are using the cross street.  I’ve never been on the bus when it has made these lights.

There were many compromises in getting the silver line built and these are what make it such a problem. There are portions with a dedicated lane, but only a couple blocks where there was a dedicated lane that is kept free of traffic. A much longer stretch consists of buses the middle of the street sharing the road with cars in Boston’s Chinatown and theater district which is highly congested and often brings the bus to a complete stop. In portions of the South End, there is a bus lane, supposedly shared with bicycles, but there is nothing to keep cars from double parking in it and I’ve never been able to take a trip with her has in the least one car forcing the bus to go around. The MBTA and the city periodically say they are going to enforce the busway, but they rarely do so.

This doesn’t include the problems of overuse. The bus lines are always overcrowded which causes the buses to slow and bunch up and leads to the wonderful situation with the bus driver yells at the passengers to move further back and blames them for the problems of the overcrowded buses. The bus line is not of sufficient capacity to meet the needs of the neighborhoods it serves and is not clear that anything will ever be done to fix this. The other problem was the peculiar design of the bus shelters which were the product of a committee of people who probably have never waited for a bus. They had no sides, evidently to keep the shelters free from graffiti. And their roofs were so high that they provided no shelter from the sun, rain, or snow. The MBTA has announced they are going to remedy this.

It bus rapid transit is to become a viable alternative to fixed rail systems, we are going to have to do better.

San Francisco wants a congestion charge

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

San Francisco announced that it wants to implement a toll on cars entering and leaving the city from the south.  The plan calls for charging $3 for cars entering in the morning rush hours and $3 for cars leaving during the afternoon rush.  Taxis and buses would be exempt.  There are already bridge tolls on cars coming from the north and east.  Revenue would be used to improve transit.

As to be expected, there is opposition.  Commuters do not want to pay more.  Others say they have no alternative to drive and they cannot afford higher costs to come into the city.  The plan will need state approval.

I am not sure there are a lot of places that could support a toll or congestion charge.  My back of et envelope scan would include Manhattan, the West Side of Los Angeles, and Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley).  Perhaps any area that has  local parking garage rates greater than $15 or $20 might sustain a charge as well.  But the plethora of free parking means that most Americans are not willing to pay a premium to enter certain areas.  A problem could emerge if a toll or congestion charge results in pushing development out of an area into the outskirts of a city, that would increase sprawl and automobile dependence.

Congestion charges have been implemented in  a number of places, most famously in London.  The experience in that city seems to indicate they can be successful, raising revenues and reducing congestion without hurting local businesses.  New York City tried to put in a charge but it failed to win approval in the New York State legislature.

This is going to be interesting to follow

Built Environment Text Book

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

If all goes to plan, in the Summer of 2011, I will have a textbook published on the built environment and public health by Wiley/Jossey-Bass.  This book surveys the broad field of the built environment. It takes as its premise that there are profound health impacts on how buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and societies are built; and it uses historical analysis, epidemiology and public health research, and urban planning examples and public policy analysis, as well as case studies highlighting successful efforts to mitigate the health impacts of the built environment to analyze issues and develop provide the basis for programmatic responses. The goal is to empower students and readers to understand conditions around them and begin to address these health and environmental impacts. The book emphasizes science and solutions. The book was developed through my experience in teaching courses on the built environment and urban environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. It is based on the model curriculum suggested by Botchway and colleagues (of which I was a contributor).

The chapters of the book are:

1.         Introduction

2.         History

3.         Planning and urban design

4.         Transportation

5.         Healthy housing and housing assistance programs

6.         Infrastructure and natural disasters

7.         Assessment tools and data sources

8.         Indoor and outdoor air quality

9.         Water

10.       Food, nutrition and food security

11.       Vulnerable populations

12.       Mental health, stressors, and health care environments

13.       Social capital

14.       Environmental justice

15.       Health policies

16.       Sustainability

The lessons of privately owned mass transit

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

I have taught my built environment course enough times to identify trends in students’ arguments. One of the more interesting shared assumptions is that General Motors killed public transit in the United States. The theory, popularized by the 1988 move, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is that General Motors and its corporate allies bought up trolley systems across the United States, and destroyed them so that people would have to use cars and buses, products made by GM.

This is not a defense of GM. What they did was wrong and it did help ruin public transit in the US. Before the 1950s most cities had trolleys. By 1970, public transit was gone in most urban areas in this country.

But the lesson from this is different. The problem was the private ownership of transit. GM did not buy public transit, they bought private transit systems, companies, that provided transit. If these assets had been publicly owned, then they would not have been vulnerable. The lesson? Don’t let private companies own vital public services. Corporate interests are not public interests.

The limits of high tech driving

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

I have an Iphone, a netbook, high speed wireless in my house, Ipods and every other gizmo I can get my hands on but….

Researchers are working to make cars safer and to facilitate higher car densities.  The goals are to make driving safer and improve traffic flow.  Given that over 40,000 people die each year in traffic related injuries, this is a good thing.  Each death and injury represents human suffering.  Each accident is a loss of time and money.  But will these high tech gadgets really solve the problems of autos in this country?

Researchers are developing sensors on cars that can automatically detect how close cars are, stop cars if they are about to hit a stationary object or a pedestrian, perhaps they will be entirely driverless. You will be able to sit back, let the computer take you to your destination, perhaps even get some shut eye or read.  These innovations will allow more cars to use a given stretch of road and reduce accidents by reducing human error. They hold the promise of reducing accidents caused by fatigue and distraction or even by alcohol.

Putting aside the skepticism that these mechanisms will work 100% of the time (I keep thinking of the old joke – If Microsoft built cars they would crash a couple of times a day), let’s assume they will work.  We will have fewer accidents and deaths.  Capacity will be increased.

We will also have continued obesity problems, physical inactivity, over consumption of land, sprawl, etc.  In other words, these new technologies will not solve all of the many problems associated with car use.  The overreliance on cars causes so many problems, have had such a profound negative impact on society, that mere technological changes to make them more efficient will miss the point.

The use of these technologies are what are known as narrow solutions.  They solve a small (but important) problem, but ignore the broad problems.  They are literally no panacea to the problems posed by cars in this country.