Wednesday, January 26, 2011

News from NARP and TTI

You may be aware of NARP, the National Association of Rail Passengers, and MARP, its Michigan sister; you may even be a member. If you're not, you may want to take a look at NARP's latest newsletter on-line. In addition to news, there's some interesting analysis. I'll hit the high points here.


Do Republicans always oppose public transit and rail spending? No. It's pretty well known that outgoing California Governer Arnold Schwartzenegger actively encouraged California's high speed rail initiative, branded "Fly California", as well as many other environmentally conscious policies. NARP's newsletter details the efforts of Virginia's Republican governor Bob McDonnell to increase rail service in his state. The results are a model for working cooperatively with the freight railroads that own the tracks, increasing frequency, and investing state funds in projects that benefit both freight and passenger traffic. As a business-savvy politician, McDonnell knows that "investment" is more than a nice word for government boondoggles. His state budget has called for deep cuts, but not in transportation infrastructure, in which he plans to invest $4 billion. An interesting funding source for infrastructure is Virginia's 10% tax on car rentals, of which 30% is used for rail and conventional transit.

Further south, in Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott has yet either to support or block the Tampa-Orlando high speed line. But the project is pretty hard to object to: most of the capital cost is covered by Federal funds, while the operating costs and risks will be covered by private companies, of which seven are bidding to operate the line. What's more, Associated Industries of Florida, a business lobbying group, is strongly in support of the project. Perhaps the only negative factor is the association between high speed rail and President Barak Obama, and the fear some politicians have of being linked to anything the opposing party favors.


Some very interesting facts emerge in a white paper by NARP Communications Director Sean Jeans-Gail. He puts together figures from several sources that show the costs and benefits of rail transportation and compares them with the costs and benefits of highway funding. Here are some of the most significant:

  • Amtrak recovers around 75% of its operating costs from generated revenues;
  • U.S. commuter rail, on average, nationwide, covers 53% of it’s operating costs through the fare box;
  • Gas taxes, road tolls, and vehicle registration fees covered 51% of the cost of America's highways in 2008;
  • The average US household spends 15% of its resources on transportation, of which 94% goes to supporting its automobiles;
  • Families that use public transportation as an alternative to an additional auto save about $9000 each year (a figure I've often brought to your attention!).

Do Americans actually use rail as a meaningful transportation option? Between 1995 and 2008:

  • US population grew 15%
  • Highway use rose by 21%
  • Commuter rail ridership grew 28%
  • Public transit ridership went up 31%
  • Amtrak ridership grew 32%

Another source of information and analysis - perhaps better known to many of you - is the Texas Transportaiton Institute. These researchers have for many years been the primary non-governmental source of information on traffic nation-wide. Their primary focus is on roads and highways, and they do a great job with it. Their annual report came out last week - a feast for those who like to dive into the numbers and fish out their own conclusions. Congestion is one of their main focuses, and the amount of time and money lost to congestion is truly staggering. For each commuter in a major metropolitan area...

  • Average time lost to congestion: 50 hours each year, reaching as high as 70 hours in the worst areas, Chicago and Washington DC;
  • Gallons of gas wasted: 39 on average, 57 in Washington DC;
  • Money wasted: $1,166, and as high as $1,738 in Chicagoland.

The trend has been steadily upward: in 1982, the average commuter lost only 18 hours each year to congestion.

City-by-city numbers are available, so I looked at the numbers for the Detroit metro area. The good news: congestion is decreasing around here...but of course, we know why: the population is shrinking. So we're back to where we (Wake up Washtenaw) started: how do we make our region more attractive to people and businesses?

I think the figures here might give us a clue.

To read more:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Green or Brown?

The Great Lakes Echo had an interesting article last Thursday: "Detroit businessman proposes large scale commercial farming to struggling city". It's about John Hantz's plan to take Detroit's urban agriculture to new heights - or at least, to a far more ambitious stage. Hantz is a Detroit-area financier and entrepreneur with experience in real estate and banking, together with apparently deep pockets. His idea is to use Detroit's hundreds of acres of abandoned property to grow food, not simply on a family-by-family or soup-kitchen basis, but for profit, using the best techniques MSU's agricultural scientists can provide.

Now, why would that be of interest to transit-advocacy people or to Wake Up Washtenaw? Well, because what's really behind Wake Up Washtenaw is more than transit, it's sustainability.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you may recall the "White Paper" that appeared in sections here a couple of years ago. In January 2009, I put up the section outlining my concept of a new-built sustainable community based on a totally fresh start - a "town" with connections to the earth as well as other communities around it. This community would be able to sustain itself in food and energy, and take care of its own waste, while connecting its residents to the outside world - all without requiring them to own an automobile.

I have long believed that the only practical way to achieve these goals is to start with a large, empty tract of land and build from the ground up. In other words, to use "greenfield" development techniques. Many of my fellow environmental advocates have disagreed with me on principle, believing that we have enough "brownfield" areas to make greenfield development unnecessary. Current environmental thinking holds that the unused and underused parts of our cities and towns provide ample space for sustainable development, without sacrificing precious open space for human habitation. And this argument is especially telling in Michigan, the only state in the US to lose population over the last ten years.

Mr.. Hantz's large-scale urban agriculture plans seem to underscore the availability of thousands of acres within our Michigan cities and towns for profitably growing food. It's a wonderful revelation in one way, but is it the last nail in the coffin for greenfield development in Michigan?

I firmly believe there are good reasons to keep thinking about "green greenfield" development. I'd like to know what you think. Seriously. But here are my reasons for not abandoning the idea of sustainable greenfield development: With it, we can...

  • Use sustainable building practices from the ground up, rather than retrofitting old buildings and infrastructure to sustainable levels, which can be prohibitively expensive. We can start with LEED principles from the get-go, and build structures that can house many people comfortably with a low energy budget and the possibility of, for example, enclosed roof-top gardens the enable the air to be refreshed naturally during the winter.
  • Shape the community for sustainability. Rather than living with existing street and traffic patterns, we plan "outside the box" street layouts, transportation, and shopping for sustainability, while respecting and celebrating the natural features of the land.
  • Build energy production into agriculture and waste-management. Bio-waste from both agriculture and the residential waste stream can be used to produce energy, but it is difficult to do economically if energy, agriculture, and waste management are not planned as mutually interactive systems from the beginning.

Beyond these practical details lies the specter of Michigan's population loss. But study after study has concluded that the way to reverse this trend is to make Michigan the kind of place creative young people want to live in. They are the most likely to be able to revive Michigan's 20th-century economy by injections of 21st century creativity. And that's precisely where a totally new kind of sustainable community can really help. It frees the imagination from the mistakes of the past, the shape-restrictions of old buildings, and the constraints auto-oriented urban design. It allows creativity to work from the tabula raza, the natural state.

A sustainable greenfield development can incorporate existing natural features into the design, features which were long ago erased from the grid of city streets. It holds the promise of taking a section of cornfield and woodlots and actually increasing its agricultural productivity through intensive organic growing techniques, while at the same time greatly increasing its population and reducing the amount of carbon, waste heat, trash, and bio-waste. It allows science, engineering, architecture, and urban design to interact creatively and imaginatively.

So...what do you think?