Transportation headlines, Tuesday, Oct. 2

Here is a look at some of the transportation headlines gathered by us and the Metro Library. The full list of headlines is posted on the Library’s Headlines blog, which you can also access via email subscription or RSS feed.

Carmageddon II: fun times & flawed infrastructure funding priorities (L.A. Streetsblog)

Gary Kavanaugh takes a skeptical view that Carmageddon was a complete success. He likes that many people drove less for a couple of days and instead got on their bikes or the Metro. But it’s the reason that troubles him: Gary doesn’t believe $1 billion for a bigger, wider 405 is necessarily a better 405. Excerpt:

Fun times aside however, perhaps no other project in California is burning through so much money for so little theoretical benefit. We are destroying and rebuilding multiple bridges and ramps primarily to accommodate the construction of one additional lane (on the Northbound side) for a 10 mile stretch of the 405, at a cost of just over a billion dollars.

A billion dollars invested in bike lanes, cycle tracks and off street paths could have been absolutely game changing and transformative to the quality of life across the entirety of the Los Angeles region. In short order, Greater Los Angeles could have become a world-class cycling destination if we prioritized accordingly.

Instead, Metro and Caltrans might save a fraction of peak hour 405 commuters a few minutes off their car commute. If we’re talking about a net benefit that accounts for the delay and hassle created for those same commuter during the extended destruction and construction processes of this entire project, than I’m really skeptical.

I think the counter-argument here is that there are some road projects that are justified because they help traffic flow more efficiently — the less idling cars, the better. In the case of the 405, it doesn’t make much sense to have a carpool lane on one side of the freeway but with a 10-mile hole on the other and I happen to believe the new Wilshire flyover ramps will help smooth a bottleneck that backs traffic up in both directions. That said, I can’t disagree with Gary that it wouldn’t take a billion dollars to build the kind of bike and pedestrian facilities that would be game changers.

A bike lane in Paris — not too many helmets out there, eh? Photo by Dsade, via Flickr creative commons.

To encourage biking, cities lose the helmets (New York Times)

Very smart trend story. Excerpt:

“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits,” says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.

He adds: “Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.” The European Cyclists’ Federation says that bicyclists in its domain have the same risk of serious injury as pedestrians per mile traveled.

Yet the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that “all cyclists wear helmets, no matter where they ride,” said Dr. Jeffrey Michael, an agency official.

Tough public policy issue, in my view. Complicating things is that some folks ride at a very leisurely pace that doesn’t seem likely to cause any kind of serious injury. On the other hand, there are folks out there on road bikes riding at a good clip and any kind of fall could be very dangerous. Your views?

Hey Seattle PD, what’s the latest? (New York Times)

The Emerald City’s police department is diving deeper into social media, using Twitter to inform residents of some neighborhoods almost every crime that’s reported. Nope, it’s not a transpo story, but I’m including it here because, naturally, I’m interested in the intersection of social media and government. My hope is government can use social media to better inform people what government is up to — perhaps earning a little more trust/faith from taxpayers. Or perhaps not, judging from comments on this blog on Metro’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The bankruptcy-sprawl connection (L.A. Times)

Former Ventura mayor and urban planner Bill Fulton opines that sprawl has certainly not helped the coffers of many cities stuck with the tab of caring for expansive road networks. The key graph:

One California planning director calls this a cycle of addiction. Each new development project generates huge new revenues — impact fees upfront and greatly increased property taxes once the project is built. But the impact fees never cover the cost of the infrastructure and, because of Proposition 13, the buying power of property taxes declines dramatically over time. Sooner or later the new project is running a deficit instead of a surplus for taxpayers.

The only way to forestall a financial problem is to approve another sprawling development. And another. And another. Sooner or later, however, the real estate market crashes, this development Ponzi scheme collapses and taxpayers are left holding the bag. That’s what happened in California starting in 2008.

Fulton argues that more compact urban development makes more sense — not as many roads, not as many miles traveled by city vehicles, etc. But he also says it’s a panacea. I agree. Not to argue for sprawl, but I suspect that Prop 13 is the far bigger problem. Some residents pay a lot of property taxes each year, some pay very little and the bills are all over the places for commercial properties. How to solve it? Beats me. But I think it starts with elected officials willing to sacrifice their political careers in exchange for doing something positive.

One other point worth making: This is a smart opinion piece and it’s great that the L.A. Times published it — it’s certainly an important issue for Californians. But why is this topic being relegated to the opinion page? The impacts of Prop 13, both good and bad, would certainly be an interesting story, or series of story, for the Times’ news pages.

13 replies

  1. Steve,

    It doesn’t matter what government does: people in the US are innately distrustful of government. And that’s what made this country great. We do not want government intruding our lives spreading propaganda using social media like Iran, North Korea, or Syria.

    A great example is the TSA blog. Whenever news breaks about TSA agents stealing, groping children and eighty year old grandmas, smuggling drugs, overstepping their authorities doing Code Bravo drills, turning off cameras to protect their brothers, all it does is repeat “we put our agents in high regard and that the actions of certain few do not represent the actions of other TSA agents” over and over again that it’s becoming late night comedy show matter.

    And frankly, it doesn’t take much for one to search the internet to dispute whatever government says.

    Metro’s policies are a great example. Thanks to the internet, youtube, and other sources from all over the world, we now have the information on how public transit are built, run, and funded throughout the world. And because of this, we all know that Metro is doing everything wrong in the book compared to the rest of the world.

    Seriously, why waste time and money trying to re-invent the wheel when we can just follow tried and true methods from cities around the world that get transit right? And no, other world cities does not mean “let’s copy Philadelphia, Chicago, or New York.”

    • Hi there;

      Sorry, disagree. The Source and Metro’s social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook certainly host their share of criticism of the agency. And I think your statement that Metro is doing everything wrong is one of those nice sounding soundbites that is a vast overstatement. I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with everything the agency does but I think the reality is that Metro and other large transit systems have more in common than there are differences.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  2. I’d like to say that the blog and Metro’s twitter account (I haven’t really connected to Metro on Facebook) are 100% positives in terms of public outreach and bringing the agency and the riders closer together.

    It provides a place for discussion, both positives and negatives, and from what I’ve seen the discussion had been relatively free for a necessarily moderated board.

    The improvement I see that can be made is on twitter when it comes to system delays. More specific updates THROUGHOUT a delay (maybe just on the alerts account, with the first and last also posting the main Metro account) would do a great deal in improving the connection to riders in a frustrating time. Delays are often frustrating more because of the lack of information and total uncertainty than they are due to the actual delay. This goes for all modes of communication (especially system signs and announcements), not just twitter, though.

    • Hi Steve;

      There are efforts underway to improve the service alert situation. Without boring you or anyone else to tears, there are some issues — of logistics and staffing — of getting the most user-friendly info downstream to customers in a timely basis. Metro is aware of it and trying to resolve and I will continue to do my part in letting agency staff know this is a major concern of our customers. As you well know, you’re not the only voicing this complaint.

      I’m optimistic the alerts will improve, but it might take a little bit more time until it’s at the level it should be.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  3. My view regarding bicycle helmets is “use common sense, the consequences of your actions is your responsibility.”

    We don’t need to have a nanny state where every single law or dumb ordinance has to be spoon fed to everyone. It just costs too much tax dollars to enforce every minute thing.

    You decide to wear a bicycle helmet, good for you.
    If you don’t decide to wear a bicycle helmet, well that’s your choice too.

    Whatever consequences you have from wearing/not wearing helmet, that’s your responsibility to deal with it on your own.

  4. er….that photo is not “a bike lane in Paris”. It’s a photo of part of a busy urban highway along the banks of the Seine (it operates one way in the opposite direction to the cyclists) which is closed to traffic on some summer Sundays. It would be as if you posted a photo next Monday of a street used in CicLAvia and then called it “a bike lane in downtown LA”!

  5. I agree with Steve Hymon. Thanks to Metro’s openness, we know much of what happens within the agency, the least of which may be allowing my frustration sourced comments to appear in this blog.

    I for one am very unhappy with the priorities of Metro, specifically because they seem so politically motivated instead of based on the needs of the population. For the ultimate example of inefficiencies caused by the democratic process, look at the High Speed Rail project. But that doesn’t mean we should want less than a representative democracy; it does mean we need get off our butts and fight for our needs.

    That being said, it would be great if this blog covered the MTA community meetings and reiterated a representative sample of the public comments made by attendees (ahem, ESFVTC).

    • Hi AD;

      I can’t always get to community meetings, but I’ll try to find a way to get some of the comments onto the blog. I do try to post presentations when there are meetings about particular projects so that readers can comment on them. My experience is that the tenor and content of comments left on The Source mostly reflects what was said at the meetings. But not always and I do think that the audience of this blog tends to skew toward those who support particular projects.

      As for getting the most out of the government you’re paying for, I really urge people to contact elected officials with their concerns. You don’t want to do it willy-nilly so that they tune you out. Rather, I think the best approach is a very well written and civil letter in your own voice that expresses your concerns. Those are the ones that tend to be taken the most seriously.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  6. “I think the reality is that Metro and other large transit systems have more in common than there are differences.”

    Steve,
    When I compare the likes of Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore on how they run, fund, and operate their mass transit systems, it is a 180 degree difference to how Metro runs theirs.

    Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore has:
    1. Standardized to distanced based fares across all their systems.
    2. Their contactless transit cards are compatible across multiple agencies, multiple cities, and even retail stores.
    3. Their contactless transit cards are fully refundable deposits.
    4. Their contactless transit cards have no expiration date.
    5. Their mass transit is a for-profit enterprise where 70-80% are government owned with the rest held by private investors who can buy, sell, and trade mass transit stocks on the stock market.
    6. Their mass transit corporations are allowed to invest in real estate and venture out to other enterprises to find additional sources of funding to raise capital for projects and operations.
    They promote business activity to occur directly at the train stations to earn additional rental income from businesses.
    7. They actually make profit.

    Metro
    1. Has absolutely no standardization going on. Flat rate on Metro, distance based on Metrolink.
    2. TAP is incompatible even with LA County. TAP is not accepted on the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus. It is not compatible with Metrolink. It cannot be used interchangeably with San Francisco’s Clipper Card or San Diego’s Compass Card. TAP can only be used to ride buses and trains within LA. You cannot use it to buy drinks, food, and snacks at Famima or 7-Eleven.
    3. TAP is a “fork over $2 every three years” system.
    4. TAP expires. You lose all your money in it with no way to get your funds back. The only way to circumvent this is to buy another TAP card and call at Metro’s business hours on a weekday, being put on hold forever for a customer service representative to help you. It’s the year 2012 and they want you to do this over the phone for something that can be simply done online.
    5. Metro is a 100% taxpayer funded agency with a dismal less than 30% farebox recovery ratio. Taxpayers have to foot the bill for projects, operations, and maintenance. There’s only three solutions on the table: raise taxes, raise fares, or massive service cuts. Those are the only three choices. ALWAYS.
    6. Metro hates business. If they have $20,000 budgeted per station, they prioritize installing artwork instead of spending the same $20,000 to buy some 2x4s at Home Depot and build a newspaper stand which will bring in long term revenue. Metro lacks any business skills to actually earn their own money as they’ve been so used to “just tax everybody” solution for everything.

    And no, I don’t buy that well Asian cities are densely populated excuse. If that were the only reason, why does NYMTA have the same budget shortfalls and bureaucratic nightmares as any other transit agency in the US?

    It’s really simple. America cannot run mass transit. Stop wasting taxes in re-inventing the wheel thinking we have a better idea. The Asian cities already figured it out a formula to make mass transit work so just do what they do.

    • Hi Frank M:

      I’ll address your points about Metro.

      1. You are correct. Metro has a flat rate. That could change. The upside is it’s cheap to travel far and the single ride fare is lower than most other large transit agencies. The downside is you have to pay to transfer. At some point in the future, I think distance-based fares will be certainly discussed.

      2. TAP cards work with several of the other muni bus systems in the county, including Culver City, Foothill, Norwalk and Santa Clarita. Metro is working to bring Metrolink onto the TAP system. I know there was a debit-card type TAP that could be used to make other purchases; to be honest, I don’t know if it still exists and will have to check. To be even more honest, I’ve never wanted to use my TAP card to buy anything other than a ride on Metro.

      3. TAP cards currently cost a $1 at ticket machines and $2 at the taptogo.net website or $6 if you buy with a day pass on the bus. Therefore, I recommend getting one at the ticket machine or on the bus to save the buck.

      4. TAP cards expire after three years. As you point out, there is a way to get any remaining balance transferred to another card — but it’s hardly ideal.

      5. Yes, Metro is funded by taxpayers — just like every other government agency in the United States. And, yes, taxpayers foot the bill for agency expenses, just as they do for the Army, the National Park Service, your local police department, etc. I disagree that there are only three options on the table when it comes to paying bills or expenses.

      6. If you think Metro hates business, then perhaps you should check out the agenda for the Board of Directors. The Board regularly issues contracts — often large ones — to an array of businesses, big and small, for products used by Metro. While you say Metro hates business, others might argue Metro likes business too much and should reduce the amount of work it contracts out. Of course, there’s a reason that Metro contracts work out — it’s less expensive to buy a rail car (for example) than to build a factory and make them yourself.

      As I’ve said before, I don’t know enough about the inner workings of transit agencies in Asia to comment on them or even form an opinion about adopting their business structure. I can tell you that Metro struggles with most of the same issues facing large transit agencies across the U.S.

      The problem is that you speak in absolutes. I don’t agree that “America cannot run mass transit.” Transit is alive and well and useful in many cities, including (I believe) Los Angeles.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  7. I think TAP has a lot more potential that is not being used to its fullest extent.

    There’s no real reason why TAP can only be used for public transit. Compared TAP to a VISA card. A VISA card is accepted everywhere. I can use my VISA card to buy 4 mini tacos at a 7-Eleven in my neighborhood, pay my electric bills online, buying airline tickets, purchasing classical concert tickets in Prague, and paying for my hotel room in Bangkok.

    Same with contactless transit cards in Asia. I can top off my Hong Kong Octopus Card with cash and I can use it for the HK ferry, the buses, taxis, the HKMTR subway, and buying goods at 7-Elevens and other convenience stores all over Hong Kong.

    The key to making transit cards a success is like a VISA card: you need to make it universally accepted. What good is a TAP card filled up with $100 when all you can do is pay for a bus or train ride on select transit systems?

    For all the money wasted in trying make TAP work, Metro should’ve just gone straight to using contactless VISA cards for bus and rail instead. Instead of spending millions on trying to make TAP work, they could’ve just worked with VISA (a California company, mind you) so that tap-in could’ve been done straight from any VISA branded debit or credit card that has the contactless feature.

  8. Anna,

    We already know about the stupid ReadyCARD. As with everything Metro, we don’t buy it because of the gotcha fees.

    TAP ReadyCARD gotchas:
    https://www.tapreadycard.com/aboutcard.aspx

    NO TRANSACTION FEES / NO HIDDEN FEES
    Just a $4.95 monthly maintenance fee <-WTF is "no hidden fees" when there is one? BS

    RELOAD RATES
    FREE* direct deposit
    $2 ReadySTATION reloads
    $1 Bank ACH transfers
    $1 Card-to-Card/Bank Account transfers
    (MoneyGram, Western Union, GreenDot MoneyPak and Visa ReadyLink fees vary by retail partner)

    FREE* BALANCE CHECKS
    You can check your balance for FREE whenever you want, as often as you want, on our website, at our ReadySTATION, by signing up for Alerts or through our FREE iPhone app

    FREE* CUSTOMER SERVICE
    4 FREE Live Agent Customer Service calls per month; $3 each additional
    4 FREE Automated Phone Service calls per month; $0.25 each additional
    Earth to Metro: no one calls in this day and age. Just make everything doable online!

    FREE* CASH WITHDRAWALS
    When you ask for cash back at point-of-sale. Only $1.95 at the ATM.

    Fees after fees after fees. Deceptive advertising, usual tactic by government agencies.