Monday, May 27, 2013

AATA Board, What is AATA Here For?

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) had its Board of Directors annual retreat today (May 22). During the four hours of discussion lots of topics were brought up, as you can imagine. I'd like to comment on a few issues that I feel are fundamental, and offer this blog post as a substitute for what I would have said during the end-of-meeting comment period, had we not been limited to two minutes.

In this post, I'll be looking at how transit fits in to communities. Beyond just getting people from point A to point B, transit can play a very important role in the economy - in fact, in the very shape of our community and what it feels like to live here. In the next post, I'll try to answer the question, "Who are We, the Ann Arbor Community?"

The Mission of Transit

OK, maybe not THE mission of transit, but here's why transit is critical in Southeast Michigan now. (I should point out that AATA has an excellent statement of is mission, vision, and values on its Web site. No quarrel with that.)

AATA aims to provide a "prefered" way for people to move around the community in an efficient, timely way. They do a fairly good job at that. But it's important for a Board of Directors to keep in mind the larger role of transit in a community. Besides providing efficient mobility, a good transit system exerts a planning role, a livability role, and fills a public health role in ways that no other entity can.

Planning, in the sense that transportation has always influenced how communities grow and develop. When people began to build cities, they chose sites that offered security, water, and good connections for trade with other cities. The shapes of these cities varied according to how people could defend them, and efficiently get around in them and between them. That was about 4,500 years ago. In the 21st century, security is no longer provided by strategically locating our cities and building high walls around them. Water is still critical, but we now build cities where we like and pipe the water in from distant sources. That means modern communities a primarily shaped by how people get around - by transportation.
The second half of the 20th century saw private cars and highways encouraging communities to spread out over large areas, to provide privacy and a feeling of "country living" to large numbers of people. But with the coming of the 21st century, the tide has turned as people realize that living in spread-out communities has many unforeseen drawbacks. The most obvious is the cost of "care and feeding" for multiple vehicles, but lots more problems are becoming apparent as time goes by. That's where a transit system comes in.

Transit can provide much less costly, more efficient transportation - but not when communities are spread thinly over large areas. Conversely, transit increases the value of communities that are more compact - of housing and business that is closer to transit lines. This makes the communities more sustainable, in the sense that people can continue to live in them without the excessive cost of owning and operating multiple vehicles. So if transit routes are planned in such a way that they reinforce compact development, over time communities will become more sustainable. (Of course, rail-based transit exerts the strongest economic pressure towards sustainable development, but even buses are effective to some extent.)

By Livability I mean the "cool factor" of a community. (Some call it "vibrancy" or "quality of life".) It's about whether a community is fun to be in. I sensed that quality in some of the cities I visited last month in Spain, especially in Barcelona. It's the ability of a community to put people first, offering beauty, entertainment, chances to meet people or just watch them go by. (I confess: I love to watch people!)

A good transit system makes it possible for people get to a variety of places and then enjoy being there. Cars make it possible to get to lots of places, but then you have to find someplace to park them. Space for cars takes away space for people. Parking lots and structures take up prime real estate in the places where people most want to go. Car-space pushes apart the people-space, making it farther to walk from one interesting place to another. That, in turn, makes more people want to drive in their cars from one place to another, leading to a "need" for even more parking spaces. Anyone should be able to see that's an unsustainable downward spiral, but most of us prefer not to look at it too closely.
So a good transit system allows the places people want to be in, to be closer together. The proximity of interesting places makes a community more fun to live in. Cool!

Public health is increased by transit as well. When people have no alternative but to use cars for transportation, they are much less likely to get the gentle but effective exercise of walking to the bus or train (or more strenuously running!). Along with diet, over-dependance on personal vehicles is a major factor in the American obesity "epidemic". I mentioned in my recent blog about Spain and Madrid how trim the people riding trains looked. Of course, transit is not "the cure" for obesity - I've seen plenty of obese transit riders in the U.S. - but it helps.

In addition to obesity, transit is a public health tool because it's so much safer than driving. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone dies every 15 minutes in a motor vehicle crash on US roads; crashes kill more people ages 5 to 34 than any other cause of death, and in one year motor vehicle crashes cost Americans $99 billion in medical care, rehab, and lost wages. Transit bus crashes represent only 0.2% of traffic crashes.

So the Board and staff of our transit agencies should be saying to themselves, "We have the power to make our communities healthier, more sustainable, and better places to live and work. How can we best shape our service to do that?"

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Spain: Trains and Stuff

(Written April 8, 2013)

OK, so I'm in Spain for a couple of weeks - partly to tour around with my wife Martha, and partly to attend the twin conferences "MetroRail 2013" and "LightRail 2013". What are my impressions...?

First, let's look at the economy and people in general, then at trains in particular (of course!) and finally at transportation and development (settlement) patterns.

Economy and People

We've heard a lot of bad news about Spain's economy, particularly the high unemployment. Indeed, when my wife and I landed in Barcelona and took a taxi (*gasp*) to our hotel, we got an earful from the taxi driver about how bad things are. "The Euro was terrible idea. We're paid Spanish wages but charged German prices!"

Perhaps I should point out that I've spoken Spanish since childhood. I don't speak Catalan - the native language of Barcelona and its region - but it's partly intelligible if you know Spanish, and all Catalan speakers seem to be equally fluent in Spanish, at least the day-to-day variety.
Barcelona: Plaça Catalunya

After recovering (somewhat) from jet-lag, we went out to get acquainted with that charming city, and found no evidence of distress except a few pan-handlers - but not as many as I've come to expect in Chicago. And that was the case throughout Spain: people crowding the restaurants (and not only tourists); Spaniards on vacation or on business in the trains; young couples (lots of them!) out on dates; people fashionably dressed (especially women and business men); families out and about with small children; people in stores and shopping malls. Lots of cars, hardly any of them old clunkers. In general, a prosperous, seemingly contented people.

So why all the bad news? Basically, I believe the Spanish Government is protecting its people from the impact of the recession by borrowing - and that's the problem. We have a debt problem in the U.S. as well, but our productivity and reputation is sufficient to enable us to continue to live "on credit", while apparently Spain is being held more strictly to account.
Some of the signs of economic distress I look for are shuttered factories and construction projects abandoned for lack of funding, like we have in Ypsilanti. What I saw instead was factories apparently in production and infrastructure being built. There's quite a lot of new housing in evidence. The high-speed rail extensions from Sevilla to Granada and Cádiz were both going forward with men and machines in evidence. Plenty of cars (as well as trucks and buses) on the highways, though having traveled mainly by train, I haven't been on highways much.

Spain is a very European country, unlike much of Latin America. It seems Europeans in general know how to live well without as much over-use of resources as we Americans. Maybe the extended families have continued to hold together as the primary social unit, sheltering multiple generations, while we in the U.S. have the nuclear family as our primary unit. Perhaps most Spaniards know how to enjoy life whether with or without large amounts of money - I don't know. What I am certain of is that they know how to create beautiful, enjoyable communities.


As you may know, the Spanish have invested very, very heavily in their railroads over the last few decades. They have 3,000 kilometers, or 1,864 miles of high speed line, making theirs the longest in Europe and second in the world only to China. Their trains are fast, frequent, and comfortable. They are heavily used, though not as crowded as I remember from visiting in 1972.

The equipment is all relatively new. Spain has two major companies that design and manufacture railway equipment: C.A.F. and Talgo. Both have their equipment running in the U.S. and other parts of the world; Talgo primarily in the U.S. Northwest between Seattle and Eugene; C.A.F. in commuter or urban service, though I don't recall where. (I'm riding in a train now, between Barcelona and Valencia in a Talgo train without WiFi, so I can't check now...) [Update - CAF in the U.S.: One generation of Washington Metro cars; Pittsburgh, Sacramento, and Houston LRVs; Amtrak's Viewliner II railcars.]

Spain's high-speed rail lines
High speed rail lines of Spain
High-speed lines radiate out from Madrid - not surprising, since it's both Spain's capital and its largest city. I rode line from Madrid to Barcelona this morning in 3 hours 10 minutes (compared to 5 hours 36 minutes for Google's fastest estimate of driving time) a distance of about 616 kilometers (383 miles). The top speed on this train, a Siemens ICE-3 (Renfe Class 103), was 300 km/h, about 195 MPH.

The line south of Madrid to Sevilla may be a bit slower; the top speed our "Alvia" train went was 250 km/h (155 MPH) according to my GPS. (I'm not sure if that's the top speed on the southern line, or if it's the max for the Talgo equipment used for "Alvia" service.) [Update: Talgo "Alvia" is a dual-mode train, equipped for guage-changing and, in some cases, with both diesel and electric power. Their maximum service speed is 250 km/h (155 MPH) under 25 kV 50 Hz AC catenary.]
In Cadiz Station, L-R: Two Alvia class 130s (Talgo-Bombardier); a class 449 regional; a Civia class 462

But the "big deal" about this is not just the speed, but the punctuality and frequency. Punctuality is not quite as good as Japan's: a couple of trains I was on were 5 minutes late (*gasp*) and the rail operator, Renfe, will not guarantee connections with less than about an hour between trains. High-speed service between Madrid and the major cities of Barcelona (northeast) and Sevilla (in the south) is offered throughout the day at hourly intervals, and more frequently in the morning and afternoon; service to other major centers is close to this frequency as well.

Like some French TGVs, Spanish Alvia runs on both high-speed (up to 155 MPH) and regular-speed (max about 125 MPH) lines. This provides a one-seat ride between smaller cities without high-speed lines, and the major centers that have them. But the Spanish have introduced a feature practically nobody else has, on account of historical peculiarity: the normal guage in Spain is "broad" - 5' 5.67" (1668 mm) rather than the world "standard" guage, 5' 8.5" (1480 mm). But in order to make their high-speed lines compatible with the rest of the world, they use "standard" guage for those, and developed changeable-guage axles on Talgo and CAF equipment. So when an "Alvia" train goes from one guage to another, it goes through a cambiador ("changer"). These are in gray metal sheds, which the train moves through slowly with a great deal of creaking and squeaking while a specialized device unlocks the axles, the rails force them to the new width, the axles are re-locked, and a mechanical specialist observes to make sure the process went correctly. Then the train is off again with its new gauge, passengers none the wiser if they haven't read about it!

Naturally, there is a whole hierarchy of services with different equipment, from the exalted "Ave" to the lowly "Metro" subway. Renfe services are in three categories: long-distance, medium-distance, and suburban. Spanish state governments subsidize their suburban and regional services. Cities run their subway, light rail, and streetcar services as well as transit buses. All the Renfe services are very comfortable, with large windows, relatively new equipment, and smooth track. "Preferred" service (1st class) includes meals at your seat; the high-speed and medium-distance trains have café cars but not diners, where people can stand at tables but not sit down. Some long-distance trains that aren't high-speed, and all overnight trains, have full-service diners - excellent food and wine!
The Barcelona to Granada "Trenhotel" in Granada Station behind a class 334 diesel.

Subways, on the other hand, are primarily designed to fit the maximum number of passengers - and they can be quite crowded. I've ridden the Madrid and Barcelona subways; Bilbao, Valencia, and Seville have them too. Some of the subway lines are shared by Renfe suburban trains, and long-distance trains also share the tunnels to access the centers of cities.
All in all, our children and grandchildren in the United States will be

fortunate if our generation leaves them a system as good as Spain's.

Transportation and Development

Is there a connection between the Spanish people's apparent contentment and their transportation system? I'd have to say Yes, though naturally transportation is only part of the story. Many Spanish people have cars (most of them small), but it's easy to travel pretty much anywhere without one. Certainly no city dweller need consider getting a car unless they particularly want one, which saves the average family a lot of money - particularly since motor fuels are quite expensive and heavily taxed. This means that the cost of job-hunting and of being productively employed is much lower than for us in Michigan, so if the Spanish government pays unemployment, a relatively modest payment goes a lot farther. (You may recall also that a few years ago, when Prime Minister Zapatero was elected, he withdrew Spain from the NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan. Whether or not you agree with this move, it made more funding available for human services and infrastructure within Spain itself.)
Countryside, central Spain

Spain has a lot of open agricultural and non-arable mountainous land - it's a beautiful country, and the trains' big windows make it easy to enjoy. The cities are compact, and the majority of people appear to live in apartment buildings 6-10 stories high. There are single-family homes, of course, but it's rare to see large lots.

Avenida Constitución, Granada
The result is cities and towns that are relatively inexpensive to serve with public transportation. And it is heavily used. This morning I watched subway trains arriving at the airport every 2.5 minutes, disgorging scores of passengers at the end of the line, and leaving 30 seconds later to return to the city. I was waiting for a commuter train that goes to the center of the city more directly, every half hour. (Need I point out that no American city has both subway and commuter rail direct to an airport terminal? It's pretty common in Europe.)

City life is not for everyone, of course, but when it's done right, it can be a very satisfying lifestyle, with many amenities close by. As I said earlier, the Europeans seem to know how to enjoy life, and how to create cities that are fun to live in. I've often seen the word "vibrant" used to describe this quality lately, and I assume it doesn't refer to vibration from heavy traffic. ;-) I guess I prefer the expression "fun to live in" to describe this quality, but whatever you call it, Spanish cities all seem to have it. It's a quality I'd like to see us have more of where I live.

Note: I've written the preceding part of the blog entry on various trains today (Monday, April 8). I'll have to look up some facts when I can get access to the Internet, but this is a great illustration of how train-travel can be comfortable, scenic, and productive all at the same time. :-) [Updates have been added in square brackets]

Spain and California

To give an idea of how Spain compares with the United States, the closest similarity is between Spain and California, in size and population.

Spain California
Size (sq mi)
Population (2012 estimate)
GDP (PPP) 2012 estimate total ($trillion USD)
GDP Per capita

Spain is somewhat larger than California (but smaller than Texas); has more people than any U.S. state; has a GDP somewhat smaller than California (but larger than Texas); and per peson produces less than any state in the U.S., but close to average for the European Union.