Friday, March 30, 2012

The Atlantic Money Report

This was an eye-opener for me: how Americans (in aggregate) spend our money now, compared to several decades ago. The article is short (two pages) and easy to read (lots of graphics by "Kiss Me I'm Polish"!), but not so quick to digest. The implications for sustainability are complex, hard to untangle, and weighty. Read the article!

Here are a few teasers:
  • In 1947, Americans spent 42% of their income on food and clothing; in 2007, we spent only 16%.
  • In 1967, 26% of food spending went to farmers; in 2007, that was down to only 14% (1947 figures are not available for everything Rose tracked).
  • Transportation accounts for only a little less now than in 1947: 8.5% compared to 9.3%, BUT...
  • Manufacturing the cars takes only 3% of our transportation dollars compared to 7% in 1967.
Since we're spending so much less on manufacturing, food, and clothing - and farmers are getting much less of our food dollars - where is our money going instead?
  • Health care is soaking up the largest shift in dollar-flow: from about 5% in 1947 to 18% in 2007.
  • Advertisers, lawyers, and other "business service" people took 15% of our food dollars in 2007, compared to the 14% that went to those who actually produce the food.
  • In transportation, 24% of our 2007 money went overseas for imported oil and vehicles, compared to only 7% in 1967; and auto retailers (sales and service) declined from 41% in 1967 to only 26% of our transportation dollars in 2007.
  • Legal and insurance fees for transportation jumped from 9% to 21% in the same period.
Whoa! Did you catch that? We're paying only 3% of our transportation cost for the cars themselves, but 21% for legal and insurance? What does that say about the sustainability transportation in the U.S.A.?
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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Buses in Tunnels

This morning, I read of a tragic accident in which a tour bus crashed into the wall of a Swiss tunnel, killing many school children. But even if that had happened Monday of last week, I would still have taken a bus from Newark, New Jersey's Penn Station to New York City through Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River.

Why a bus in a tunnel? Because I had learned from an official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (at a meeting organized by Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council) that more people are brought into New York City in the reserved bus lane of the Lincoln Tunnel than by any other transportation corridor. That's really surprising, given how many high-volume rail corridors run in to the Big Apple. I had to experience it for myself, especially since Michigan's Powers That Be announced that Detroit will be getting a "rapid bus" system instead of light rail. Could this be a potential model?

Here's how it works. Every morning, buses from all over northern New Jersey - and beyond - head for the west entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel, which runs from Hoboken to 42nd Street in Manhattan. My bus - NJ Transit Route 108 - started on the ground level of Newark's Penn Station in a bus terminal that would be a good model to emulate. (We'll take a look at bus terminal design toward the end of this post.)

Route 108 is local through Newark, and made several stops along Raymond Boulevard. Then we got on the New Jersey Turnpike (breezing through the gates with an E-Z Pass), ran a couple of miles, and got off at Union City, a portion of the megacity that perches on top of the Hudson Palisades Sill. We made one stop there, leaving about 1/3 of our passengers and replacing them with new riders. About 46 people were on board, 43 of us seated and three choosing to stand, though a couple of seats were unoccupied. Demographics? Well, there were two or three European-derived people like me on the bus, but the majority represented the remainder of the globe pretty well.
Past Union City, we headed onto another tollway and down to the east gate of the Tunnel (and yet another toll-collection). The bus-only lane was indicated by illuminated signs which would be turned off after rush hour, allowing cars and trucks to use both lanes through the tunnel. Our bus driver elected to use the non-reserved lane, which was a little faster at first, though later things evened out. Traffic moved pretty slowly in both lanes, but before too long we emerged in sunny Manhattan.

That's when the spiralling began, as we followed the queue of buses slowly up around the concrete ramps. There are apparently two spiral ramps, one leading to Level 2, the other to Level 4 of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Buses of all kinds use these facilities: NJ Transit seems to be the heaviest user, followed by Coach USA ("A Stagecoach Company"). Greyhound, Megabus, and several regional bus lines serve the terminal as well. Bus types include big and small, city transit and intercity, public and private.

The terminal building is big and new. Six stories high (as I mentioned), with a basement shopping/food court and subway station below it all. I found the terminal that morning full of people hurrying purposefully out (no surprise there), more like streams of rushing water than individual people. I had to dive into the streams and "swim" across in order to get to good picture-taking spots.

I'm told the terminal is just as active in the evening, but the activity isn't concentrated into such a brief time period, so there is no bus-only lane except in the morning.

The boarding process is super-organized in the Port Authority Terminal, and also in Newark's Penn Station. I'll describe Newark's because that's what I had a chance to see in detail and photograph.

There are four parallel lanes on the east-bound side of the station. The bus lanes run at right angles to the railroad tracks, which are elevated, making the boarding areas semi-enclosed, protected from rain and snow, but not from the wind. The lanes are wide enough for buses to pass one another, and separated by boarding platforms ten or twelve feet wide. Each platform has at least two enclosed glass shelters with benches for waiting passenger, designated to serve two or more bus routes. Some shelters have an official in a booth at one end for security, who operates the sliding glass doors to let people board their bus when it arrives. The shelters have electronic signs announcing the time till arrival of the next bus, of course.

When buses arrive at the station or terminal, they let passengers off on un-sheltered parts of the platform. According to the driver's orders, they may wait until departure time before moving to their assigned sliding doors to admit passengers; or they may leave the terminal and go to a parking lot to await their next scheduled assignment. Because of the premium on land in Manhattan, buses that drop off their passengers in the morning normally go back to New Jersey to wait for their evening assignments in large bus-parking lots.
Well, it was certainly impressive, particularly the Port Authority's bus terminal. It'll be a long time before Detroit matches that. In the meanwhile, bus transit could be made a lot more efficient for both passengers and bus operations by adopting some design features of the Newark bus station. It's much more pleasant to get on and off buses in a well-designed terminal. A pleasant transit experience can make a big difference in whether people choose to ride or drive, so we can make our country much more sustainable to making transit more inviting.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

SEMCOG's Best Guesstimate

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is tasked with projecting population and employment changes over the next three decades. They do this every four years to help area transportation, environment, and land use planners. Sometimes they come out with pretty curious results.

To help with this task, demographer Xuan Liu uses a widely known modelling package, "UrbanSim" (the planning tool, not the battle game!). Though the software is well respected, its complexity and the need for well-crafted assumptions and data to be fed into it makes some of its predictions a bit puzzling.

Here are some results the piqued my curiosity. When asked about similar seeming anomalies at a recent WATS meeting, Xuan's answer was a shrug, a sheepish smile, and a confession that he often can't fathom what goes on in the software. Anybody have any theories? (In case it helps you to know: UrbanSim uses Monte Carlo methods and Bayesian melding...)

  • Starting with the apparently trivial, Barton Hills, the elite little village north of Ann Arbor, is forecast to lose 17 people while generating 19 new jobs by the year 2020. Really?
  • Dexter is modelled as losing 420 people and 37 jobs by 2020, despite growing 40.8% between 2000 and 2009, according to How come?
  • The City of Ypsilanti is forecast to lose 2,274 people, while Superior Township, immediately to the north, is expected to gain almost the same number: 2,168. Are they expected to move out of Ypsilanti, in spite of Superior's low-growth land policy? Does SEMCOG think the City will pass an income tax that chases people away? Curiously, Ypsilanti is expected to gain 1,035 jobs. Those are not detailed by industry, so what sector is expected to bless the Ypsi with jobs? Meanwhile, state law forbids SEMCOG from revealing Superior Township's job growth potential because of its relatively small number of employers. (St. Joseph Mercy Health Center and its nearby medical clinics are undoubtedly the largest, with the Kia/Hyundai research center a distant second. There really aren't many more!)
  • And finally, Ann Arbor: In spite of its pro-growth policy and having more active building projects than any other part of the county (or of the state?) is modelled to grow by only 433 people to 113,934 in the next decade. Meanwhile, employment is expected to surge by 5,494 to 121,289 jobs. That's more jobs than residents. If the prediction is anywhere near correct, we'll need to beef up the transportation infrastructure or face mega-congestion. (You knew I'd end up saying something like that, didn't you?)

SEMCOG has officially closed its comment period on these draft projections, but if you're really concered about any of these numbers, drop them a line:

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