Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stupid idea of the month: pretending to solve pedestrian signal timing issues using Pong

 Game lets you play Pong with a person on other side of the crosswalk (source)
ThisIsColossal reports on "ActiWait", which is a video game with controllers on either side of a crosswalk, allowing two waiting pedestrians to play a game of Pong.
The ActiWait is a new generation of traffic light buttons. Installed at a pedestrian traffic light with long red phases, it offers pedestrians the possibility to convert boring waiting times into positive experiences. Through a touch screen which is installed in the upper shell of the button, people can interact with each other across the street.
As a public art project, it's neat. Especially while it retains novelty value. But as a "solution" to long red phases, it's incredibly stupid and condescending. Let's get this straight: is it okay to subject pedestrians to needlessly long wait times at traffic signals, so long as you give them a 1970s video game to play? Absurd. What's the message being sent here? As near as I can tell, the message is: "You walked? Well then, your time is worth less than that of a driver. Here, play a game, instead of getting where you're trying to go."

The solution to long waiting times is not games... the solution is shorter waiting times. Engineers should respect the fact that pedestrians are people too and they don't appreciate being forced to wait excessively long times simply for the convenience of motor vehicle drivers. This is not a difficult topic, and it demands no techno-wiz solution. The answer is simple: shorten traffic signal cycle times to reduce average waiting times. And don't require the use of "beg buttons" to cross the street. Pedestrians should be given at least as much respect as drivers. If you don't make drivers press buttons or play games at traffic lights, then you shouldn't force pedestrians do that either.

Slides from Ricardo Olea, SF MTA (source)
San Francisco is known for its pedestrian-friendly signal timing. As you can see, engineers at SF MTA understand that overall cycle length is very important to the pedestrian experience.

Doubling the cycle length causes the average delay for pedestrians to more than double. In San Francisco, a 60 second cycle length is fairly standard. Unfortunately, in Boston, most signal cycle lengths are between 90 and 120 seconds. Sometimes they vary depending upon time of day -- usually lengthening during rush hour. 110 seconds is a fairly common cycle length, in my experience. All of this is firmly in the "red" according to SF MTA, leading to unhappy pedestrians. Well, actually what happens is that Bostonians quickly learn to ignore the signals because the timing is quite obviously terrible.

ActiWait is from Germany so hopefully they will stay over there. Or perhaps they can invent a game that convinces traffic engineers to treat pedestrians better. Here's an idea: perhaps a little device that can be installed in their cars. At every single signaled intersection, it forces them to stop, push a button, and wait 50 seconds on average for a green light. The fun part is that if you push the button at the wrong time during the cycle, you may have to wait an extra cycle to go around before you get a chance to proceed. That's how signals in Boston are programmed. All the fun of a slot machine, and none of the reward!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The SPOT app undermines the Clean Air Act, and therefore our air quality, in Boston

I recently read about the "SPOT app" that allows people to easily rent out an empty parking spot that they own and are not using. Sounds reasonable enough. I'm a fan of making more efficient use of physical resources. It's the opposite of "minimum parking quotas" that force everyone to waste huge amounts of land and money, and yet still fail to meet parking demands.

"SPOT app" (source: BostInno)

But, when I took a look at the map included with the article, it occurred to me that there is something not quite right about this. The app allows you to rent spaces in the Back Bay and downtown Boston. It transforms so-called "accessory spaces" that are attached to particular uses (such as residences) and allows them to be used instead as "commercial spaces" that are available to anyone, for a price.

So what's the big deal?

Well, back in the 1970s, the city of Boston was facing an air pollution problem caused by the creation of all those urban highways that tore through the city, bringing hundreds of thousands of cars spewing exhaust fumes into the air. In order to satisfy provisions of the Clean Air Act, the city of Boston agreed to cap the number of "commercial spaces" that would be available at any one time. It's called the "parking freeze" and it's intended to help preserve our air quality. The downtown Boston parking freeze cap is currently set at 35,556 spaces, and there is no capacity for new spaces at the moment. Yet, the SPOT app is effectively creating new commercial spaces that have not been subject to the parking freeze regulations. That means more cars, more air pollution, and more congestion.

I think it would be appropriate if the company that created the SPOT app were to be proactive about dealing with this air pollution problem. Perhaps they should disable the use of the app within the parking freeze zone until they figure out a way to mitigate the air pollution caused by the additional cars they may be attracting into downtown Boston. Perhaps it should only be available for electric vehicles within that zone. Or perhaps they need an allocation from the freeze "bank" in order to offer spaces in that zone. I don't know what the best solution is. But I do know that it is something that should be addressed. 

I'm also a little disappointed that City Councilor Frank Baker did not consider the implications for the parking freeze, the Clean Air Act, and our air quality, before providing an endorsement of the app.

One thing I did find really interesting is that the company behind this app has been collecting price information about short-term parking in various parts of Boston. This article has a breakdown. Average prices range from $1.75/hour in Allston/Brighton up to $3.75/hour in Back Bay. What's remarkable about these averages is that (a) they're higher than the city-wide set meter price of $1.25/hour, and (b) they're really not that expensive, and quite reasonable when compared with typical meter prices in other American cities. Even the Back Bay's average market-driven price of $3.75/hour is less than meter prices in busy parts of Vancouver, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Does it really make sense for places like the Back Bay and the South End to have city meter rates that are comparable to Boulder, CO or Rochester, NY (both $1.25/hour)? Hopefully, this inspires the city to give another look at using smart parking reform to address parking issues, instead of hurting the residents of the city with onerous minimum parking quotas. Those quotas are especially harsh on people who don't even own automobiles and yet are still forced to pay the cost to park other people's cars.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Thoughts on Question 1 and transportation funding in general

It's been a few weeks since the November elections, so I'm chiming in a bit late, but there's no real hurry. There weren't really any surprises with the state-wide office elections, and I don't know how that will all shake out in the new year when the new officials take office. But the success of Question 1 was a bit of a surprise to me. Part of that is the almost complete unreliability of polling on such questions. But also because Question 1 was so obviously a "Tea Party temper tantrum" that I figured Massachusetts voters would see through it.

In the past year, the legislature had finally taken some responsibility for transportation funding -- after twenty years of denial. They raised the gasoline excise tax by 3 cents, not enough to make up for the value lost through inflation, but something. And more importantly, they arranged an "indexing mechanism" that would ensure that we would not suffer through another twenty year period of fiscal farce. The "indexing mechanism" would keep the value of the excise tax steady over the years, ensuring that the regular effect of inflation would not become a source of de facto tax cuts.

Question 1 repealed the "indexing mechanism", thereby spurning the fiscally responsible step taken by the state legislature. Therefore, the gasoline tax will, in effect, receive an automatic tax cut every year going forward, again. Voters here have rejected irresponsible tax cuts in the past, so it's a bit of a head-scratcher, but hopefully not a trend-setter. In any case, if you are ever in conversation with a voter who claims to be "fiscally responsible" ask them if they voted for Question 1: if so, you can safely call them a hypocrite.

So what happens now? Well, the legislature is going to have to scramble a bit to find funding for some things. There are still plenty of failing bridges, potholes aren't going away, the T has 45-year-old subway cars that can't go without replacement, and buses have to be replaced on a regular schedule. It appears that the latter two are not in danger, and neither is the important Green Line Extension project through Somerville. But funding for everything else is questionable. That includes part of the cost of the Allston Interchange project that will replace the failing riverfront viaduct of the Mass Pike and reshape the area, fixing many of the problems that the existing highway afflicts on the neighborhood. There's the River Street and Western Ave bridges, which are crumbling. And several hundred other overpass and bridge repair or replacement projects that I could scarcely begin to enumerate. Roads ain't free, despite the feverishly held beliefs of the mostly suburban, mostly automobile-dependent voters who forced Question 1 on us.

Meanwhile, MBTA bus and train fares are virtually guaranteed to go up by about 5% every two years. Somehow, once again, public transit riders have been left holding the short straw, while drivers continue to reap steadily increasing subsidies in the form of inflation-driven gas tax cuts. Funny how that always seems to happen.

Paul McMorrow has suggested that we should adopt the idea of regionally-based taxes to pay for transportation projects. Ballot questions enacting regional sales or payroll taxes are popular in many western states. But it's not constitutional in Massachusetts, so this would require some fancy footwork or a change. And there's a bigger problem: we will end up with a system where transit projects are funded via additional regional taxes, while highway builders get to keep helping themselves from the general fund. Not a good dynamic. If Boston is forced to tax itself just to keep the MBTA running, then why should Boston subsidize highways in central and western Massachusetts? Either all transportation projects should be considered regionally, or none at all -- because we're all in this together.

For a few ideas to consider, check out the report last month from the Urban Institute about how the various states are handling the gas tax. Some have indexed the price in various ways to the going wholesale price of gasoline, which is one way to simulate a percentage-based tax like sales taxes. Oregon and Virginia are piloting a major reform that replaces gas taxes with vehicle-miles-traveled taxes. This is thought to better represent the cost to society of operating a vehicle on the public ways. The Federal government has also floated the idea of allowing tolling to be used on interstate highways (where it was not grandfathered). Tolling would be a fair way to obtain funding for highways, the counterpart of paying a fare to ride a train or bus. Used properly, it would also have the benefit of actually reducing congestion: with automated electronic tolling it's hassle-free, and part of the proceeds can be used to fund really good public transportation for people who don't or can't drive.

Here's a reform package I've been thinking about:

  • Apply sales tax to gasoline. Right now, gas is exempt from the sales tax, which is a hugely regressive subsidy to drivers at the expense of lower-income families. If we were to instead apply the sales tax to gasoline, then the overall rate could be lowered, so that other goods and products that everyone buys would not be subsidizing gasoline (at least, not as much). This could be designed in such a way that any increase in cost for gasoline would be made up for by decreased cost in everything else.
  • Change the purpose of the gasoline excise tax: instead of funding transportation, an excise tax on gasoline should fund clean-up of the pollution caused by gasoline usage, and also public health efforts to mitigate the damage to human health caused by gasoline usage. The rate of the gas tax would be set at the level needed to achieve these public health goals, which include the Healthy Transportation Directive and the Mode Shift Goal.
  • Other excise taxes should go into the general fund.
  • Transportation should be funded out of the general fund based on the merits and cost-effectiveness of each project in question. Such projects should have to compete with other worthy projects in other departments, such as schools, housing assistance, health care, and yes, even tax cuts.
  • Ridiculously bad boondoggles such as South Coast Rail, which is expected to cost the state over $500,000 per projected rider, should be discarded until somebody finds a way to get the costs under control.
  • All congested highways should be outfitted with variable, automated, electronic tolling. The tolls would vary from free (when there is little demand) up to whatever amount is required to clear out congestion at that time of day. The precise formula would have to be carefully designed in order to avoid surprising people. The revenue from the tolls can be used in several ways, and there is a reasonable argument that some of it should be used to ease the regressive effect of the tolls. Part can go to boosting public transportation capacity and frequency along the corridor, making it a real, serious option for many more people. This has the nice side effect of bringing the benefit of the transportation infrastructure to the many people who cannot drive, for whatever reason. Another part can go towards income tax relief for the low-income users of the highway who still need to drive. The rest should go into the general fund.
  • End all parking subsidies. That includes the minimum parking quotas found poisoning most zoning codes. The authority to impose such quotas, which are an intrusion on private property rights, comes from enabling legislation in the General laws, so it should be possible to retract that authority at the state level. Minimum parking quotas waste land, destroy healthy environments, raise housing prices, and, in general, these kinds of subsidies help cause traffic congestion. It's hard to imagine a more self-destructive set of regulations.
Does this package have a chance of ever passing? I doubt it. There's too much powerful, vested interest in the status quo. As we saw with Question 1, people don't like it when you end their subsidies, even if they are really harmful, self-destructive subsidies that cost the rest of us dearly.

I'd be interested to hear other people's ideas about transportation funding reform.