Can Mass Transit Save the Environment? Right Wing or Left Wing, Here's a Post Everybody Can Hate

A major rationale — perhaps the major rationale — touted by supporters of mass transit is that by reducing our output of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, transit can help save the environment. The proposition seems intuitive and even obvious: by no longer encasing each traveler in thousands of pounds of difficult-to-move metal, surely transit is more energy-efficient. Plenty of analyses prove this. But then again, Aristotle, who was revered as the infallible font of truth for more than 1,000 years, proved that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones and that women have fewer teeth than men. Might studies that demonstrate transit is greener be similarly wrong?

They might. The reason is that many studies of energy efficiency by mode often make questionable and -- depending on the author's point of view -- self-serving assumptions. The main trick is to look at autos with but one passenger and compare them to transit vehicles in which every seat is full. (For example, see this.)

But in the real world, this is emphatically not the case.

The Status Quo

If you ever travel to Israel (which, BTW, is a phenomenal place to visit regardless of your attitudes toward religion or Middle Eastern politics), you’ll certainly see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on what many believe is the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. But you might come away a bit disappointed; the church has something of a disorganized and ramshackle feel.

The problem is not that the site isn’t considered sacred, but that it’s considered too sacred. Thanks to its obvious import, it is shared—and has been for thousands of years—by multiple religious denominations, including the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox sects. (Sorry, Protestants, since Luther’s 95 Theses were not posted until 1517 you are Johnny-come-latelys and don’t get a piece of the action.)

A Bill of Goods? Assessing the Transportation Legislation

Do you want the good news, or the bad news… or the bad news… or the bad news… 

Okay, in this post let’s start off on the bright side. At a time when the two parties cannot agree on the menu at the Congressional cafeteria, the Republicans and Democrats have found something they can agree on. After three years of debate and nine temporary stopgap extensions, Congress and the President have enacted new transportation authorization legislation. This bill divvies up the gas tax money, plus some miscellaneous revenue from other sources (more on this later), and funds and regulates the federal surface transportation program for the next 27 months. 

In many respects, this is a pretty remarkable achievement. Things could have been worse: on the same day that the transportation agreement was announced, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on healthcare. Compared to the stark partisanship surrounding that issue, when it came to transportation, John Boehner and Harry Reid held hands around the campfire and sang Kumbaya.

The Train, The Train! Federal Transportation Legislation: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hi all! Sorry I haven’t been writing much of late; I’ve been dealing with the minor matters of filing a dissertation and finding myself gainful employment. The first step is complete: I get to call myself a doctor now, though it is a source of considerable disappointment to my friends that after almost eight years of study I’m not the kind of doctor who can prescribe them medical marijuana. The second step is complete too: I’ll be joining the faculty at Clemson University in South Carolina as an assistant professor in the fall. I’m thrilled to be going to Clemson as I think very highly of the department, the setting, and winning college football.

Anyway, I’m going to try to get back in the habit of writing more regularly, this time about my dreams for transportation—which are turning out to be nightmares. Like one of those stories where a genie gives you three wishes and every one of them boomerangs. Or even better, a bad episode of Fantasy Island:

The Vanishing Walk to School

Since the late 1960s, the share of U.S. kids and teens who are overweight has more than tripled. Why? I personally find Ronald McDonald kind of sinister, but it’s possible that Happy Meals might not deserve all the blame. In fact, Noreen McDonald—no relation to Ronald—of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has analyzed a trend that might be contributing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. Kids today aren’t walking or biking to school like they used to.

In 1969, the National Household Travel Survey found that roughly 41% of school-age children/teens got to school by “active travel” (i.e. walking and biking, though mostly walking, which then and now is more than 10 times more prevalent than biking).

In 2001 the walk/bike share was down to roughly 13%, a pretty spectacular drop. For elementary school children the change was even more stark. Today, even students who live within one mile of school have a less than 50% chance of walking; about 86% of similarly situated students walked in 1969.

Raising MPG Standards: The Second-best Solution to a Gas Tax Increase

It got surprisingly little press coverage given the degree to which it will affect our lives (thanks, pesky world economic meltdown), but in case you missed it, the Obama administration recently worked out a compromise with the major automakers that will dramatically raise the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards.

The new regulations mandate that the mix of new cars sold in the year 2025 must achieve about 54.5 miles per gallon (though if you read the fine print you’ll see that credits for various other green innovations mean that actual fuel economy will be more like 40 MPG.) For reference, the auto fleet currently on the road gets about 27 MPG. It’s a well-done agreement that will help avoid well-done citizens as global warming accelerates.

Before proceeding, let me note that I am strongly in favor of this policy. The problem of excessive fossil fuel use in transportation is multidimensional: if the issue of global warming doesn’t move you, the thought of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad using our own hard-earned dollars to tweak our geopolitical noses should.

However, it is worth noting that raising CAFE standards is what political scientists and economists call a “second-best” solution; we could be doing considerably better if we thought all of this through more clearly.

Bad Karma-geddon? Conjecture, Construction and Congestion in L.A.

L.A.’s “Carmageddon” is over. For those in the rest of the country, or Angelenos who spent the last two months trekking in Bhutan or in monastic seclusion, Carmageddon was the result of the complete closure of a major Los Angeles freeway over the weekend. The results?

Carmageddon was predicted by almost all journalists and government officials to be a brewing traffic nightmare of unprecedented dimensions. Only a day before the event I was reading predictions by our transportation authorities stating that traffic as much as 50 miles away would reach nightmare-like proportions. Only a very few, including myself, predicted we would see a situation of unusually light traffic reminiscent of the last time a similar situation happened: the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

In fact, Carmageddon saw stunningly low traffic levels, with many who did venture out reporting they had never driven at such speeds in LA in their lifetimes. Moreover, fears that the project (which involved demolishing half of a bridge over the highway) would drag on into Monday’s rush hour proved totally unfounded, as the work was completed and the freeway reopened on Sunday afternoon, many hours ahead of schedule.

A Solution to Car Accident Rubbernecking: Setting Screens

A few posts ago I wrote a piece about traffic incidents —some of them quite bizarre—that can cause road congestion. Many of these are due to reasonable or at least understandable causes; for example, we need to have road construction, although here in L.A. we wish we didn’t (more about our “Carmageddon” when the results come in.)
But perhaps the most galling and unnecessary source of incident-related congestion is “rubbernecking.” As we all know, terrific jams can be caused even when the wreck(s) is moved out of the traffic lanes, as passing drivers gape at the carnage. It’s been quite a long time since we shared a common ancestor with the vulture, but evidently an evolutionary tie is still there.

Rubbernecking is one of the more interesting cases of moral whipsawing I can think of. All the time we sit in the jam we curse the drivers in front of us for their blood lust. But when it’s our turn at the front of the line… well, just a quick peek.

Seeing Red: Why L.A. Needs to Keep its Traffic Light Cameras

Thus far I’ve tried to avoid weighing in on the issue of red light cameras (RLCs) in an effort to keep my comments section free of any more angry posts than I normally get, and my email free of complaints from friends and relatives (you know who you are) who've been caught in the past. However, my hand has been forced by the Los Angeles City Council's decision to consider a measure to eliminate our RLC program.

RLCs are not particularly popular. In fact, I have found that many people vehemently hate them. To give an example, the Chicago Tribune conducted a poll in 2009 showing that 53 percent of voters supported the cameras, while 41 percent opposed them. These percentages basically flipped when voters were asked if they wanted RLCs in their own neighborhood. This is a bit reminiscent of Monty Python’s proposal to “tax foreigners living abroad.”

Road Blocks: The Strange Things That Cause Traffic

The cause of a lot of the traffic congestion we battle everyday is pretty simple: too many people want to travel at the same time in the same direction to the same place, usually a job center. Since telework has been slow to replace the traditional workplace, it looks like this problem will be with us for a while.

For decades we have known about a way to deal with chronic congestion: levy tolls which vary depending on how crowded the road is. I’ve written about this here and here.

But pricing is not as well-suited for dealing with congestion related to unusual incidents, like breakdowns and wrecks. Even when these are relatively minor, incidents can start shock waves that cause serious amounts of delay as they ripple back through the traffic flow.