Transportation headlines, Wednesday, May 27

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Ultra-fast “Hyperloop” train gets test track in California (Yahoo! News)

Leading off today’s headlines with an eye to the future: the high-speed Hyperloop concept first proposed by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and SpaceX will be advanced from an idea on paper to conceptual testing when a new 5-mile test track announced yesterday is built. The track will be located near I-5 in central California. It will be built by an independent company not affiliated with Musk, although the article reports he is also looking to build a track of similar length somewhere in Texas.

As a concept, the Hyperloop conceptually will use compressed gas and magnets to propel passengers seated in pods at high speeds through a vacuum-tunnel guideway. Though Musk posits pod speeds could reach up to 800 mph, the test tracks will be used to assess the feasibility of the concept at much lower speeds.

The Hyperloop is not without its critics and the article outlines some of the concerns of experts which include construction cost and safety. On the latter, James Powell, a physicist and co-founder of the maglev concept, said this:

For one thing, the tubes have to be very straight, leaving very little room for error. “The guideway [track] has to be built to very fine tolerances, because if the position of the wall deviates from straightness by a few thousandths of an inch, you could crash,” Powell told Live Science.

“The whole system is vulnerable to a single-point failure,” Powell said. For example, somebody could blow a hole in the tube’s side, or an earthquake (no rarity in California) could shift the tube by a fraction of an inch, both of which would cause the vehicles to crash. In superconducting maglev, by contrast, the magnets are very stable and operate reliably, Powell said. “It doesn’t require continuous control to keep it suspended.”

I tend to side with physicists on technical details that are beyond my comprehension, but I bet there would have been “single-point failure” critiques on the feasibility of air travel prior to its advent, too. Yet we engineered ways to vastly reduce the probability of them occurring.

Uber closes in on its last frontier: airports (N.Y. Times)

You can be dropped off by an Uber at LAX,  but you can’t be picked up, at least not until later this summer.  While airports in California are beginning to allow rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft to drop off and pick up riders, others across the country are still holding out. The result is Uber drivers partaking in shady-sounding activity to avoid tickets. Excerpt:

Uber drivers scout out other areas to meet up with their clients. Mr. Smith and other drivers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agreed that Uber users, most of them savvy travelers, are aware of the cloak-and-dagger dynamic and are amenable to a slightly longer walk to their waiting ride.

Those who dare pull up to the curb tuck away all identification items. They might coax passengers into the front seat and urge them to load their own baggage. Anything to unobtrusively appear as if they are meeting a friend or family member.

This type of behavior should become a thing of the past in the coming years as it’s expected a majority of airports will allow pick-ups as officials learn how to resolve the issues that have delayed rideshare companies from operating legally within their boundaries. These issues include space limitations, insurance requirements, additional fees and concerns about maintaining an even playing field for taxi cab companies.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, if you really want to get to the airport conveniently and cheaply: LAX Flyaway, people! Uber can’t touch it.

This app wants to help public transit compete with Uber (Fast Company)

A small start-up company called TransLoc is hoping to assist public transit agencies with a new mobile app that collects rider data to compile real-time trip information which could be used for on-demand transit scheduling and routing. Excerpt:

Riders using TransLoc’s app, currently a prototype, give it permission to follow their route as they ride. That data builds maps that agencies can use to make routes more efficient, and eventually offer on-demand services. Someone could, for example, someday use the app to request a bus, and the system could quickly crowdsource a route to pick up several riders with a small bus or van.

This idea is similar to the data model already utilized by private transportation and rideshare companies like Uber, Lyft and Leap. The idea is an intriguing one, especially for smaller transit agencies or for bus routes with low or infrequent ridership. The trip data from the app could also be incredibly useful in improving routing and scheduling, even if the end isn’t on-demand buses.

Toward the peaceful coexistence of buses and bikes (CityLab) 

CityLab looks at a piece of infrastructure design called a “floating bus stop” that helps mitigate conflicts between bicycles and buses when they’re required to use the same lanes. Excerpt:

These two vehicles, because of their average speeds, relative sizes, and stopping patterns, are uniquely unsuited to share the same space. It’s scary for the person on the bicycle and the bus driver alike.

The need to solve that problem is the impetus behind a piece of infrastructure known as a floating bus stop. In this design, the bus stops at a raised concrete island, while the bike lane veers to the opposite side of the island. The bike lane flows gently and seamlessly in and out of this protected area.

The concept hasn’t taken off in the United States like it has in Europe (surprise, surprise), but the article does contain a video of a floating bus stop in San Francisco as well as in the Netherlands.

Ohio’s experiment in public-private partnership just tripled in cost (Columbus Dispatch) 

In recent years, public-private partnership projects have proven in many cases to be a time and cost saver to construct major projects. A recent example of their potential for success is with part of the Denver RTDs FasTracks program, which is on pace to lay more than a hundred miles of rail in less than a decade. This story out of Ohio about the state’s first test public-private partnership is a reminder that these types of programs aren’t a panacea.

In this case, the partnership between the state and a private contractor will allow the state’s largest highway project to begin without the need for a large sum of money up front, but taxpayers will be paying for it in interest and other financial fees. It’s these payments that were not factored in the original estimate. The project is expected to be completed in four years instead of 13, but the new cost estimate raises concerns about revenue stream and the state’s ability to pay for future construction.

I let the bus driver do the worrying (Zocalo Public Square)

Albert Allen. Photo: Zocalo Public Square

Albert Allen. Photo: Zocalo Public Square

The latest in Zocalo’s ongoing series of profiles of Metro riders.

Mike Rowe’s CNN show “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” tags along with  Caltrans rock climbers

A video from Caltrans on something I didn’t know they did: employ rock climbers to clear debris and rocks to prevent rockslides on state highways. The video features Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame, who tried his hand at the job for his CNN series “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.”

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15 replies

  1. “I let the bus driver do the worrying” …

    Well said, and good for those people who are actually able to do that. It is fantastic!

    But with today’s LA public transit service level, it is not nearly enough. Many people just can’t rely on it completely. Particularly, for those folks who have dependents to take care of, kids to take to schools, errands to run, and then more housework to do after a full day of work (as opposed to those go-home-and-sleep, wake-up-and-go, live-by-yourself people), they have to drive, period.

  2. Concerning the raised bus stop. We had them in L.A. when streetcars still ran. Some were not raised but just painted in the street. They were called “Safety Zones.” Where developments take place a easement would be used to provide for needed space.

  3. “I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, if you really want to get to the airport conveniently and cheaply: LAX Flyaway, people! Uber can’t touch it.”

    Depends. Uber and Lyft runs on a distance based system like taxis and like taxis, “all passengers pay for the price of one.” Basically, the shorter the trip, the cheaper the price, the more people per Uber or Lyft ride, the cheaper “split” fare.

    So while LAX Flyaway may sound cheap, but that’s only restricted to residents near LAX Flyaway bus stops of Van Nuys, Union Station, Westwood, Santa Monica and Hollywood.

    Of course, the reality is that not everyone who uses LAX live in those areas, there are also people living in Hawthorne, Lennox, Marina del Rey, Westchester, Manhattan Beach, etc. etc. which are relatively close to LAX as well. You can’t say that people living in these areas don’t have a need to go to LAX nor have family vacations or business trips that they have to do either from LAX, right? The need to go to LAX is the same whether you’re living all the way out in Van Nuys or living close by in Lennox.

    Let’s take a look at What’s the Fare (http://www.whatsthefare.com/) which compares prices between multiple ride-share services depending on where you’re being picked up and where you’re being dropped off:

    Marina del Rey to LAX:
    Lyft: $13
    Uber: $13

    Manhattan Beach to LAX:
    Lyft: $13
    Uber: $13

    Hawthorne to LAX:
    Lyft: $11
    Uber: $11

    Lennox to LAX:
    Lyft: $9
    Uber: $9

    Westchester to LAX:
    Lyft: $6
    Uber: $6

    I think those are pretty competitive fares against LAX Flyaway. Moreso if it’s a family vacation for a group of three where then fares per person can be anywhere between $2-$4.33 per person.

    So, under these conditions Uber and Lyft fares are competitive, if not even cheaper than the LAX Flyaway, some even being as cheap as little than 25 cents more than taking the Metro bus to LAX:

    A. If you live close to LAX (and there are many who do)
    B. You split the fare among others (i.e. like a family going on a vacation)

    The analysis:
    A. You (or your family) can be picked up at the front of your home, apartment, or dwelling instead of driving over to the nearest LAX Flyaway bus stop so it’s highly appealing to many LAX travelers
    B. This inevitably is still “stealing” a small slice of market share away from public transit

    And unlike LAX Flyaway, Uber and Lyft operates solely on profits alone so no taxpayer dollars needed to run these services even at these prices, so they don’t have to worry about political landscape or thinking about raising taxes to cover their revenue streams.

    And prices will likely to go down even further as competition heats up, ride share services start utilizing driverless technology, or even if services like Leap and other ride-share bus services starts entering the LA market (lest of course, the CPUC backs down and allows Leap to resume services) and start competing in the transit market too.

  4. Eldon Musk is trying to reinvent the flanged wheel with his Hyperloop because he has the patent on it. But today’s trains are here now! They are green and they have worked well since at least 1825. Let’s keep Metro in the proven rail business. And, if you believe that Metro should be putting more money into rail instead of billions for a 710 toll tunnel to Alhambra, then show up tomorrow at US Congressman Adam Schief’s news conference at 8AM on the steps of the Metro Building!

    • Then again, Elon Musk is doing it out of his own money and not using any public funds to test his theory and project, so what’s the problem? If he fails, he’ll be out of his own money. If he succeeds, then it’ll benefit everyone. Not a single taxpayer cent spent like the CAHSR project.

      It’s not like the CAHSR is going to be “derailed” by Elon Musk’s project either, groundbreaking on CAHSR has already begun, it’s still being built (slowly as with any government project) and will eventually be built. CA is a strong Democrat stronghold, CA Democrats support the HSR project and it’s unlikely that anti-HSR Republicans will gain control of Sacramento.

      OTOH, the GOP could still back Elon Musk’s idea as his project doesn’t interfere with their ideologies (they’re not anti-HSR persay, they just don’t like the idea of taxpayer money being spent on it. If it can be built by an entrepreneur using their own money and no public funds being used, they could care less) so in the long run, they’ll just build two of them, one with taxpayer funds (CAHSR) and the other through Elon Musk’s own pocket (Hyperloop). If both of them end up being built, the people of CA win because then you have two similar modes of transportation competing for the LA-SF market and they’ll compete with each other for lower prices.

      “But today’s trains are here now! They are green and they have worked well since at least 1825. Let’s keep Metro in the proven rail business.”

      Elon Musk’s hyperloop project is about covering intercity distances like LA to SF in a short, cheap, and fast way, competing with the more costly CAHSR project, not intracity municipal services like whizzing from one end of LA County to another. Metro, being an LA County agency has nothing to do with it nor have to worry about it as Hyperloop or CAHSR doesn’t compete with Metro services.

  5. Surprise when Uber and Lyft were being sued by the DAs of LA and SF less than a year ago. So what happened? The DAs realized they were fighting an unpopular fight? Did some politician pull some springs to let Uber and Lyft conduct their business?

    Amazing thing happens when the companies are backed by billion dollar venture capitalists. If this were any other small business or entrepreneur who didn’t have access to billions in venture capital, they would be squashed by government. Money talks, so if you have a brilliant idea and you want to be successful in business, you must be a billionaire first! So much for the American Dream, eh?

  6. Having lived through the era of the “American Dream” I can say with some authority that it ended with the sound of gun shots in Dallas.

  7. Au contraire, the mother’s milk of the Republican Party is Big Oil. Whenever any transit option becomes a possibility, Big Oil pulls on the leashes of its Republicans in Congress. IF Elon Musk’s (is that really his name?) Hyperloopy looks like it is a go you can bet your Exxon Credit Card that the Republicans will snuff his baby in its crib. The Hyperloop, like monorails, will simply divert time, resources and debate away from proven conventional rail development a la Metro, and it’s tenants Amtrak & Metrolink, to the glee of Big Oil.

  8. “…but I bet there would have been “single-point failure” critiques on the feasibility of air travel prior to its advent, too.”

    This doesn’t sound like sensational alarmism to me. The surface area of a hyperloop tube from here to San Francisco would be on the order of the size of Los Angeles County. Single-point failure on an airplane, which is possible, is significantly easier to prevent, due to the smaller surface area

  9. Tom,

    Metro Metrolink and Amtrak are all government, paid for by taxpayers. When the money that is used to run them come from our paychecks, you can’t expect everyone to agree on how the money should be spent.

    Hyperloop is being built with private funds, without tax dollars. If none of our money is being used to build it, no one cares, they are free to do so. Wouldn’t you agree?

    And Elon Musk’s Hyperloop test track is going to be done in TX. TX being synonymous with big oil and a GOP stronghold, you would think TX to be the last place to test out this idea. But it’s not. So big oil and the GOP against transit isn’t 100% true. They don’t care at all when no public funds are used, just like we do.

  10. Responding to multiple people:

    @LAX Frequent Flyer
    I have taken the FlyAway several times. I don’t live near Union Station, but I took Metro Rail to US and then the FlyAway. For me flying by myself, it made all sorts of ¢ent$, vs. driving or taking a shuttle or quasi-taxi service. For me Lyft and Uber would be $42, $98 for a taxi, and $30 for a shuttle (non-exclusive).

    @Tom Savio
    Elon Musk has thrown the Hyperloop idea into the public domain:
    http://www.treehugger.com/public-transportation/elon-musk-publish-hyperloop-design-august-12-under-open-source-license.html
    And there are 2 different companies looking at developing the technology. Competetion is good right? Keeps the cost down, right? Private investment is good, right? (saves tax dollars). This is being done by private companies that want to charge the status-quo. Space-X has done that and now the Boeing lead group is feeling threatened, but it is too late.

    @Scott
    The surface area of a hyperloop tube would be: between the size of Lawndale (1.97 sq mi) and South Pasadena (3.42 sq mi).
    I actually did the math. Based upon google’s LA to SF distance of 382 miles and a 10′ diameter tube (part way betwen the passenger size and a car carrying size http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperloop#Initial_design). That yields 2.27 sq mi in surface area for a single tube. For a 20′ diameter system and 2 tubes and bumping the length up to 450 miles, the total area is 10.7 sq mi, less than half the area of Pasadena.
    The single point failure worries seem to be short sighted. The original paper (http://www.spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/hyperloop_alpha-20130812.pdf) addressed a number of the issues.

    • “For me flying by myself, it made all sorts of ¢ent$, vs. driving or taking a shuttle or quasi-taxi service. For me Lyft and Uber would be $42, $98 for a taxi, and $30 for a shuttle (non-exclusive).”

      The alternative view is that if someone has a need to go to LAX often, for example an employee working at LAX, an airline pilot or flight attendant, or someone who does a lot of travel for work, then the better idea would be to live closer to LAX to save on transportation costs.

      You can’t help but slap the head of someone who complains that his/her transportation (fuel) costs are so high when they made a dumb decision of driving a gas guzzling SUV and having to commute 20 miles each way to/from work.

      You make poor decisions and poor choices, you face the consequences. Just like getting cancer from smoking, it’s no one fault but theirs.

      • Sure. I live almost equidistant between my 2 major destinations. I drive a car that has the room that I need and ok economy. I go to or by the LAX area about 3 times a month (driving for work, can’t take transit), but only fly out about every other year. I used to work by LAX in the past. I should have car-pooled then, but did not.

    • Ha! Thanks for doing the math. Obviously that’s much more reasonable than what I thought it was, although the sheer distance would make maintenance quite costly. That is under the assumption that single-point failure under the conditions described is realistic, which would mean maintenance would have to be much more rigorous than a HSR track. Care to sum up Musk’s (p)rebuttal?

      • It’s Musk’s own private money, he has his own bean counters and likely can afford the best bean counters there is, and the money is not yours so why would you need to worry about how he wishes to spend his money?

        If you’re building your own swimming pool and you went over the figures in your head and you’re paying it for yourself, but if your nosy neighbor starts micro-managing you about costs and long term maintenance costs, what do you feel about your nosy neighbor?

        This fits the words best:

        http://cdn.meme.am/instances/500x/55572094.jpg