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Snow Plow Tracking Site Too Popular for Its Own Good

Monday, February 11, 2013

Snow plows in the Boston area, February 9, 2013. (Photo by John Byrum)

Snow was still dumping down on Boston Friday evening when the city had to pull down its public website for tracking snow plows. Within a couple of hours of snowfall the site had over a million requests from users. Boston's total population is 625,000.

"[The site] couldn't handle all the traffic," said John Gulfoil, spokesman for Mayor Thomas Menino. "It was hurting our efforts to actually track our own plows," he said.

The city had built the GPS-enabled tracking website so the public could watch along in real time as plows made their way around the city street by sodden street. 

After the blizzard of 2010, New York City was trapped in piles of snow. Cars, buses, even ambulances were abandoned in streets that went unplowed for days.  stranded on unplowed streets and citizens crying foul that they couldn't tell when and where the cleanup was coming. In the aftermath, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg said, "there was a discrepancy between information coming into and out of City Hall and what people were actually experiencing on the streets." He vowed to track each plow using GPS in the future. (More on that below.)

The blizzard this past weekend that hit Boston hardest, brought with nearly three feet of snow and the first real test (that we are aware of) of a GPS-managed snow plow fleet in a major snowstorm.

Boston has had a private GPS tracking system in place for smaller storms since. This was the first time the public was able to watch the plows move in real-time along with city officials.

The catch is that the same GPS system that populated the dots on the public website map also powered the Department of Public Works operational maps at its command center. The flood of interest from the public was clogging the servers and preventing plow fleet managers from doing their jobs. 

The Department of Public Works mustered private contractors to join the city fleet in removing more than three feet of snow from city streets. The GPS tracking system has been in place for years and helps hold the drivers accountable because managers can see where they are. "They can't hide," as Gulfoil puts it. “Hopefully next time there’s a major storm we’ll have all the bugs worked out,” Gulfoil said.

New York City had a similar website in place, though with much less snow to contend with -- and citizens out sledding and such in higher numbers -- the PlowNYC website proved less popular and less problematic. Keith Mellis of the NYC Department of Sanitation didn't have traffic numbers immediately available. "We had no interruption," he said. "It works." 

You can see where plows went in NYC hour by hour on this visualization of the PlowNYC data extrapolated by plow-watcher Derek Watkins.

 

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Transportation Nation

VIDEO: The Secrets of Grand Central Terminal

Friday, February 01, 2013

Grand Central terminal, viewed from the catwalk (photo: Maya Bernstein)

Last year, Jim O'Grady, Stephen Nessen and I got to take a cool tour of behind-the-scenes places at Grand Central -- the secret engines seven stories below that had to be guarded from Hitler, the hidden staircase behind the opal clock, the clock tower, and yes, the catwalks (pictured).  Here are the highlights: (video: Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

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Transportation Nation

How Grand Central Terminal Survived the Wrecking Ball - And Lived to 100

Thursday, January 31, 2013

(New York, NY - WNYC) Soon after Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, it was viewed as an one of the great public spaces in America, an icon of modern travel. By the 1940s, a popular radio drama bearing its name would open with a blast from a locomotive whistle and an announcer crying, "Grand Central Station! As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, part of the nation's greatest city."

Thirty years later, developers wanted to take a wrecking ball to Grand Central and replace it with an office tower.

In truth, the place was seedy. That's according to Kent Barwick, a former head of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and a key player in the effort to prevent the destruction of the terminal to make way for an office tower. "It was pretty dusty and the windows were broken," he recalled of Grand Central back then. "It was dark and and littered with advertising everywhere. And there wasn't any retail except for a couple of newsstands that had near-poisonous sandwiches and undrinkable coffee."

(We've done some terrific coverage of Grand Central in the past year:  a tour of the Grand Central clock tour with The Invention of Hugo Cabret author Brian O. Selznick here and a cool behind-the-scenes video of Grand Central's secrets here.)

The Fight Is On

The terminal was owned by the Penn Central Railroad, a company in decline because of America's move to the suburbs and car-dependent travel.  The much vaunted Interstate Highway Bill also spelled death for long-distance rail travel. In 1975, Penn Central was careering into bankruptcy and desperate to squeeze a windfall from its prime Manhattan real estate. So it proposed to do to Grand Central what it had done to Penn Station: sell the development rights to a company that would tear down the Beaux-Arts masterpiece and erect a steel and glass tower.

But Grand Central, unlike Penn Station, was landmarked.

The owners sued in state supreme court, claiming the new landmark law was unconstitutional. The railroad won, and moved to demolish Grand Central. The preservationists scrambled.

Barwick and his colleagues at The Municipal Arts Society called a hasty press conference in the terminal at Oyster Bar. Barwick's boss, Brendan Gill spoke first. "If we can't save a building like this, what can we do?" he asked.

The preservationists knew they were fighting to save not only the building but the landmarks law itself. And they knew from press descriptions of them as "a troop of well-known New Yorkers" that some of their opponents were painting them as elitists who wished to suspend New York in amber. Former consumer affairs commissioner Bess Meyerson spoke next, and addressed the issue.

"It's not really a question of change," she said. "If any city understands change, it's our city. But I think it's high time that we ask that very important question, 'Change for what?'"

Cause célèbre

The next speaker was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose presence transformed preservation from a stuffy to a glamorous pursuit. "I think if there is a great effort, even if it's at the eleventh hour, you can succeed and I know that's what we'll do," she said.

The New York Times prominently featured her in its coverage the following day, noting her "eleoquence," as well as her "two-piece tan dress adorned with heavy long gold chain." The effort to save Grand Central was, from that moment, a national issue.

Barwick recalled that Onassis also wrote a letter to Mayor Abe Beame, and that the letter began, "'Dear Abe, How President Kennedy loved Grand Central Terminal.'"  Barwick laughingly added that, "I don't know, and I don't need to know, whether President Kennedy had ever expressed himself on that subject."

Not long after, Beame told the city's lawyers to appeal the state supreme court's decision, an appeal the city won. The case then moved, in 1978, to the U.S. Supreme Court.Penn Central again argued it should be able to do what it wanted with its property. New York's lawyers said the city had the right to regulate land use through the landmarks law.

The verdict

The justices sided with the city. Grand Central Terminal was saved and, in the early 90s, underwent a restoration that brought back its luster. Penn Central Railroad eventually became Metro-North, which last year saw near-record ridership of 83 million passengers.

Barwick said that today, the city can't imagine being without Grand Central Terminal. "You see New Yorkers all the time, staking a claim in that building, pointing up to that cerulean sky and saying, 'Hey. this belongs to us,'" he said.

Grand Central Terminal turns 100 years old tomorrow.

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State of the Re:Union

State of the Re:Union: Jacksonville, Florida

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Jacksonville, Florida, is a lot of things: a military town. A church town. A beach town. And it can be all those things because Jacksonville is the largest city in the whole country: 841 acres of sprawl, highways and strip malls dotted with tiny, unique neighborhoods. How does a place this huge and diverse lurch forward to keep pace with the rest of the country? The quick answer: often, it doesn’t. But once in a while, in small surprising ways, this place can be an incubator for innovation. In host Al Letson’s hometown episode, SOTRU asks: is Jacksonville is moving backward, stuck in neutral, or shifting towards progress?

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Transportation Nation

Why One San Francisco Bike Lane Design Is Upsetting Drivers and Cyclists (AUDIO)

Friday, January 25, 2013

JFK Boulevard, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. (Photo Courtesy of SFMTA Livable Streets)

A prominent bike lane in San Francisco may be suffering because of its unique design. The ambitious, and expensive, bike lane striping of Golden Gate Park stands out from the other projects of San Francisco's bike plan for the criticism it draws from cyclists and drivers alike, in part for a disorienting placement of line of parked cars.

“I think it’s one of the dumbest things I ever saw that they put these stripes down here,” says driver Jimmy Harris of the lanes, pictured above.

Average speeds of drivers and bike riders have both fallen, a success at what's known as traffic calming. But also a stark test case of transportation psychology as users cite narrow lanes and an unusual arrangement of parked cars as confusing.

Ben Trefny and Rai Sue Sussman took a ride along JFK Blvd, with a measuring tape, to see why these particular stripes are raising hackles of bike riders and drivers. Give the audio version a listen.

Here's more: 

For a bit of background, the streets of San Francisco are changing. There are separated bike lanes on Market Street. There’s green paint all over the much-used bike path called the Wiggle. The city is definitely becoming more bicycle-friendly.

After many delays, the city’s bike plan is taking effect, with streets long-designed for car traffic being reconfigured for other modes of transportation. Four years ago San Francisco had 45 miles of bike lanes. Today there are 65 and with more on the way. Plus, 75 more miles of streets will be stenciled with symbols designating them as bike-friendly routes. It’s all having a big impact.

According to the San Francisco Bike Coalition, bike trips have increased more than 70 percent since 2006. But the planners’ choices for JFK Blvd. havn't been implemented so smoothly – and it’s flat-out rankled many of the bicyclists it’s supposed to serve.

The wide JFK Blvd. used to have almost no stripes whatsoever. Now, it’s full of them, creating several chutes designated for different purposes:  there’s a bike lane at either the edge; then buffer zone; a lane for parking; and then in the center a car lane in each direction.

Last spring, we talked with Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, about that project: the striping of Golden Gate Park

“Imagine the parking lanes that are kind of being moved out more into the center of the street, and the bikeway – the dedicated bikeway – will be against the curb, or against the green space, or the sidewalk area,” she said. “So that people biking actually have that physical separation from the moving traffic. JFK we think is a good street to try this because it is a very wide street it's way wider than most streets in San Francisco, so there was room there to try something different.”

It cost at least $425,000 to lay the stripes down – and the MTA estimates more than that to plan it all out.

So, what do the people who travel along JFK think about the new configuration?

“From a drivers’ standpoint, it’s pretty bad,” adds Daly City’s Nick Shurmeyetiv. “Honestly, the first few times I came in – like the first few times it really threw me off. I wasn't sure what was going on. I thought it was a traffic jam, or I don't know what,” he said of the parked cars that appeared to be a lane of traffic.

Frank Jones, from Concord says, “Well, we did pull up and stop behind somebody. And we thought, ‘They're not moving.’ Then we realized – there was nobody in the car! So we went around them.”

A count of cars lined up in the designated parking lane across from the De Young Museum one Friday afternoon showed 11 of 46 vehicles at least partially in the buffer zone. They followed a pattern: typically, each vehicle was aligned with the one in front of it. So if one missed the mark, many more would do the same. And they never missed on the side with car traffic. Only on the side toward the bikes.

“Yeah, you know the roadway, the width is a little narrower, but for the most part, this isn't a place to be going really fast from A to B,” says Peter Brown, who works as an SFMTA project manager.

If it’s the SFMTA’s goal to slow traffic on JFK, it’s been successful.

For cars, average speed has dropped about two or three miles per hour since the road was striped, according to a preliminary report. It makes sense, as the thoroughfare is much more narrow, now, and cars have to fully stop if anyone in front of them is trying to park.

Average bike speeds have also dropped, from an average of 14-and-a-half miles per hour to less than 13 during the week and a little slower on weekends. The report suggests that’s because bicyclists who used to cruise really fast up or down Golden Gate Park now have to slow down for other cyclists and the people who are trying to get across the bike lanes to their cars. Calming traffic, on paper anyway, arguably makes the route more accessible and safer.

The SFMTA surveyed people who use JFK both before and shortly after the new stripes went in. Almost 90 percent of responders felt like they understood the striping, but only about 60 percent liked it. Some people, like Lita Ward, don’t.

“I've had several incidents where I've nearly collided with people getting out of their cars, that are crossing the bike lane into the sidewalk area,” says Ward. “Obviously, we can't stop quickly enough... I think it's a great concept, but drivers need to be aware of what that change means for bicyclists."

It didn’t take long, wandering around JFK to see that scenario unfold. Just west of the De Young, two teenagers on mountain bikes blew through a stop sign on the downhill slope. A pedestrian crossing the bike lane to get to his car had to jump out of the way as they rapidly approached. The kids obviously hadn’t anticipated his presence, and the pedestrian didn’t notice until it was nearly too late.

Some people think better signage and public awareness campaigning would solve some of the ongoing issues with the newly striped lanes of Golden Gate Park, including longtime bike activist Chris Carlsson, who runs Shaping San Francisco, which looks into ways to improve the city.

“A proper educational campaign, in conjunction with an infrastructural transformation, I think could be really successful,” says Carlsson, who is one of the founders of Critical Mass.

[Related: Listen to an oral history of how Critical Mass was founded]

The people who most advocated for – and implemented – the striping of Golden Gate Park are examining the effects. The SF Bike Coalition has a webpage devoted to the “JFK Separated Bikeway Project.”

The page addresses some of the problems: cars that aren’t parked where they’re supposed to be; people crossing the bikeway without looking. SFMTA has a page called the JFK Cycletrack. It includes a survey in which people can share their thoughts about what they like and don’t like.

Even with the imposed structure, people are making the new configuration work for them. Sporty bicyclists take the car lane (which is allowed) to avoid slower-biking tourists and families; pedestrians walk in the bike path to avoid sprinklers; and cars drive through like they did before – only slightly slower.

But more than six months in, because of ongoing parking issues and -- for San Francisco -- the unusual off-curb parking situation, it appears that the striping of Golden Gate Park is not working quite as it was originally imagined. The removal of more than 80 parking spaces alone will be enough to change usage of the road. And unless a large-scale redesign is implemented, an experiment in shared road design may simply require users to get used to a number of imperfections.

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Transportation Nation

Cruise ships: A Luxury for the Rest of Us

Friday, January 25, 2013

Cruisers just off a ship reflect on why they decided on a cruise and whether it was worth the money. (Photo by Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace)

(Interview by Jeremy Hobson -- Marketplace) For many well-heeled Americans, the idea of a luxury vacation is a fancy hotel or an expensive flight to an exotic destination. And for the wealthiest among us, taking a break means private jets and pricey beach resorts. But for more than 10 million Americans annually, their luxury vacation means a berth on a cruise ship.

"The United States is still clearly the No. 1... market for cruisers in the world," Royal Caribbean president and CEO Adam Goldstein told Marketplace. "There are about 20 million people a year in the world taking a cruise right now and 11 or 12 [million] come from the United States."

Cruise ships weren't always so mainstream. In 1970, Goldstein said only 500,000 people took a cruise every year.

"It's definitely become more available, when I got into the business in 1988 we aspired to be a mainstream vacation," Goldstein said. "It's definitely become more accessible but what the last few years of challenges, economically, have posed to us is the need to really get across the value message of what is included in the cruise purchase."

According to industry research firm Cruise Market Watch, the ticket price for a typical cruise passenger is $1,311. When you combine onboard expenses and incidentals, the price tag rises to $1,711.

That's not inexpensive, but the the average American family will spend $4,000 on a vacation, including airfare, according to a 2010 American Express survey.

"First of all, we draw pretty broadly, obviously we offer upscale vacations," Goldstein said. "We are looking at household income of probably something like $75,000 and up generally speaking. The vast majority of our cruisers I would say would be middle and upper-middle class."

[Also from Marketplace: Fisher Island: America's most exclusive zip code.]

 

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Ongoing NYC School Bus Strike Frustrates Special Education Families

Friday, January 25, 2013

A wheelchair-accessible taxi (photo by Kate Hinds)

(Beth Fertig - New York, SchoolBook) A day after New York City said it would pay car companies directly to transport eligible children with special needs to school, parents and teachers say the system, like so much else related to school bus strike, has presented challenges.

“They have to go up to the school to get this voucher form that they have to fill out but now when they call the cab companies in their various neighborhoods the cab companies don’t know anything about it,” said Joseph Williams, president of the Citywide District 75 Council and the father of a son with autism.

The Department of Education announced Wednesday an arrangement with the Taxi and Limousine Commission that allows some families of children with disabilities to avoid having to pay first for car service and then wait for reimbursement. The D.O.E. said it would pay the car services, to ease the hardship for families during the school bus strike

The problem, many families say, is that the car services don’t know about the new payment system.

D.O.E. spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said the T.L.C. lined up the participating livery car companies, which is why families are supposed to fill out a form at school, or at their local committee on special education, to obtain a taxi voucher. They’re then given the name of approved vendors.

But Williams said he heard complaints from two different parents Thursday that word had not spread to the car companies. So he called a couple himself to see what was happening.

“I spoke to the dispatcher, ‘Do you know anything about it?’ I spoke to his boss and he said he hadn’t heard anything about it. And this was two car companies in Brooklyn,” he said, adding that he alerted the superintendent of District 75, which serves thousands of severely disabled students who normally depend on the yellow buses.

Beth Brady, a special education teacher at a District 75 middle school in Washington Heights, P138M, said she has a class of 12 students, most of whom use wheelchairs. But she said only one of them has been making it to school since the strike began because he’s ambulatory and lives closer to the school than the others.

“I was making a lot of phone calls today to share that information with them” she said, of the free taxi vouchers for lower income families. “They were asking which companies take the vouchers and we don’t have a list of that. So we’re still working on what cabs and limos would even take the vouchers. That’s a missing piece.”

Brady also said many parents can’t afford to take time away from work to accompany their children to and from school by either mass transit or a taxi. Her students come from both Manhattan and the Bronx.

Free Yellow Cabs for Children in Wheelchairs

Meanwhile, an umbrella group for some of the small yellow cab companies is offering free wheelchair accessible taxis to disabled children during the strike.

Mark Longo, information director for Taxi Club Management, said: “I’m probably getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 phone calls every hour” from families looking for transportation help.

Longo said Taxi Club Management has about 130 of the city’s 233 wheelchair accessible yellow cabs among its fleets, and that C.E.O. Gene Friedman felt strongly about wanting to help the city’s students.

Longo said families should contact him via email to make arrangements in advance at mark@taxiclubmanagement.com or call the city’s Accessible Dispatch Service, (646) 599-9999.

However, he said, Taxi Club Management doesn’t have enough cars to meet the demand and services can’t be provided outside the five boroughs. He said he is working to line up alternatives.

Transportation is especially complicated for children with the most serious disabilities because they often travel far from home to get appropriate services.

Michelle Noris’s nine year-old son, Abraham, attends the Henry Viscardi School on Long Island because he has cerebral palsy and a movement disorder called chorea. He has epileptic seizures and uses a wheelchair to get around, and a feeding tube for nourishment. The fourth grader has been taking a small wheelchair-accessible bus to school since first grade, with three other children and a matron.

Now, Noris said, she and her husband are splitting transportation duties each morning, taking Abraham to Long Island in their minivan and getting their other child to his neighborhood elementary school. She said they’re reimbursed 55 cents for every mile they travel with Abraham in their car which means return trips aren’t covered.

“It’s a 19.1 mile trip each way,” she explained. “We do it twice a day. So that works out to about $21 a day in reimbursement which just about covers the gasoline.”

These trips consume four hours each day, and since she’s paid by the hour as a professional engineer that means she’s making less money.

“They’ve offered that they would pay for car service but again, the car service they only pay while he’s in the car and of course we have to go with him, no one lets a nine-year-old child into a car service,” she said. “So that would be even more difficult financially because then I would be in Albertson, Long Island, and how would I get home?”

Noris and other families worry about the children with special needs who aren’t making it to school because of these complications. In addition to lost school time, many are also missing out on related services such as speech and occupational therapy.

Waiting on the Labor Board

The city is trying to get more school buses on the road by encouraging companies that employ drivers who aren’t striking to take a CPR course and four-hour training program. This way, they can cover for striking escorts.

Some of those bus companies employ escorts in the striking union, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Other bus companies are picking up more students than normal. And some are training replacement workers.

Meanwhile, the head of the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office, James Paulsen, said he has finished his investigation of the bus companies’ complaints against Local 1181 and their request for an injunction to stop the strike. But Paulsen said he could not make his recommendations public. They were sent to the NLRB’s Division of Advice in Washington, D.C., where lawyers will consider the matter.

A decision is likely next week, he said.

If the NLRB sides with the bus companies, it will go to federal district court in Brooklyn to seek an injunction.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter at WNYC. Follow her on Twitter

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Transportation Nation

Alexandria To Consider Registration For Bicycles

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Alexandria City Hall (photo by cliff via flickr)

(Michael Pope - Washington, D.C., WAMU) Members of the Alexandria City Council are about to consider whether or not bicycle owners should be forced to register their bikes and pay a fee.

Tucked away in the Alexandria city code is a provision, largely ignored, requiring bicycle owners to register with the city and pay a 25-cent registration fee. City Councilman Justin Wilson admits he is in violation of the policy.

"I've tried. I've actually tried," Wilson says. "We don't make it very easy to register your bike."

As it turns out, nobody registers their bicycle because nobody knows about the provision, which dates back to 1963. Wilson says city officials are now looking at the existing policy to determine what kind of changes might be needed to enforce the measure.

During a recent public hearing, Old Town resident Kathryn Papp said mandatory registration would be a good idea.

"Cars are registered and charged a fee. Motorcycles are registered and charged a fee," Papp says. "Almost every vehicle on the roadway is registered and charged a fee."

Papp says registration would also make stolen bicycles easier to recover, and revenues from a small annual fee could go towards building addition bicycle facilities.

City Council members are expected to consider recommendations in the spring.

 

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Transportation Nation

Governor Cuomo's Budget: $6 Billion for Sandy Recovery to MTA, Port Authority

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gov. Cuomo assessing flood damage after Sandy. (Image courtesy of the Office of the Governor)

Governor Andrew Cuomo is offering more details on how he'd like to spend federal Sandy recovery funds -- even though Congress hasn't yet passed the legislation. When he unveiled his $142 billion budget Tuesday, Cuomo laid out how the state will allocate a hoped-for $30 billion in aid, including:

  • $2 billion for replacement or mitigation of 2,000 miles of highway
  • $6 billion for mitigation for MTA and Port Authority, including vent covers, tunnel bladders and pumping capacity to protect transit tunnels.
  • $159 million for coastal mitigation – $34 million to repair Fire Island inlet and $125 for “soft barriers” like dunes on beaches
  • $2 billion to harden energy utilities

Read Anna Sale's story at WNYC.

Related:
NY’s South Ferry Station Closed for Foreseeable Future (link)
As PATH Resumes after Sandy, Questions Remain about Agency, Flood Plans (link)
Totaling Sandy Losses: How New York’s MTA Got to $5 Billion (link)
Transit in NYC Suffers “Worst Devastation Ever” (link)

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"I was right!" Combatants Clash Over Subway Trivia At NY Transit Museum (AUDIO)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Contestants drink beer and prepare to do battle at The New York Transit Museum's firs annual subway trivia night. (Photo by Jim O'Grady)

New York subway buffs are male and female, young and old, and come from many backgrounds. What unites them is their quest to prove they know more about the transit system than you do. And now there's a gladiatorial forum for that: The New York Transit Museum's Subway Trivia Night.

About 170 contestants formed into teams and jammed around tables in a low-ceilinged room to grapple with 60 questions posed by quizmasters Stuart Post and Chris Kelley. The museum is housed underground in the former Court Street subway stop in Downtown Brooklyn. The space has no internet connection so the trivia buffs were forced to rely on an antique information device: the human brain.

Post gave the first question: "What shape was cut out of the very last version of the New York City subway token?"

Contestant Jen Petey polled her teammates. Two suggested the "Y" in NYC. She overruled them and wrote "pentagon" on the team's answer sheet.

Post said, "The shape cut out of the last token is ... [dramatic pause] ... a pentagon."

Petey banged her hand on the table. "I was right!"

Trains and train systems have long drawn devotees. The most rabid are called "foamers" because they figuratively foam at the mouth while displaying their mastery of the arcane. This crowd was gentler, less foamer than nerd.

The answer that got the loudest response was to the question, "Whose office do you reach when you call 212-594-SKIN?

Answer: Dr. Jonathan Zizmor, famous for decades of graphic ads that promise to cure all manner of disgusting dermatological disturbance.

In the end, first prize went to a team named, The Takers of Pelham 1-2-3, a play on the title of the movie. They got 54 1/2  out of 60 questions right, beating out teams with like Whole Lhota Love, My Fare Lady, and No se apoye contra la puerta (Don't lean against the door.)

The Transit Museum declared the event a success and promised a rematch in 2014. Nerds, you have twelve months to get ready. (Click here to see more photos of the event.)

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Meet a Student Super Commuter on the Bus for a Better Life

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bus one of four to get to school. (Photo by Melissa Bailey / New Haven Independent with permission)

As New Yorkers are considering the importance of school buses with a looming strike set for Wednesday, consider the case of Nikita and her mom, Nilda Paris of New Haven Connecticut.

The mother-daughter duo travels together at least four hours a day on public transit round trip—all in search of a better education and a sense of opportunity they don’t see close to home.

Nikita, who’s 14, gets up at 4:30 a.m. with her mom in their apartment in Bridgeport’s East End. New Haven magnet schools accept kids from Bridgeport, but don’t offer bus service. Paris and Nikita don’t have a car. And the trains don’t run early enough to deliver her for the 7:30 a.m. start of school. So they hop on a series of buses, beginning at 5:30 a.m., to get to school on time.

Melissa Bailey of the New Haven Independent spent a day following Nikita and her mom  -- and taking some great photos -- to see what this student super commute is like. If you want to understand what a multi-transfer transit commute of this sort is like, read the full story. It unfolds as a touching vignette about the search of opportunity, and a bit reminiscent of our past story on the importance of a car -- sometimes -- in economic mobility.

It won't spoil the story to say, Nikita and her mother are cheerful about the trek.

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Transportation Nation

A "Last Forest" Fights Off a Suburban Highway

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The forest, as viewed from above, is a border between urban environments.

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) A coalition of homeowners groups is ready to celebrate a victory in defeating a proposal to build a highway through the last sliver of nature still standing in the concrete jungle of Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Today the transportation committee of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is expected to kill a plan to build a road down the middle of Old Courthouse Spring Branch Park, a 33-acre green space, the last buffer between urban development and hundreds of single family homes.

The park is a border between two urban environments. As shown in this satellite imagery, the city meets the park like a tide of concrete at the shores of nature. On the other side of the narrow park, it's orderly suburbs laid out like a microchip. Two ways of living protected from each other by forest, a forest it seems, both sides want to keep.

The board is responding to the protests of the group Save Tysons Last Forest, which pleaded with county transportation planners and supervisors to pick one of the other two options under consideration; the proposed highway is part of the county’s plan to enhance the road network around Tysons Corner as its population is expected to increase dramatically over the next several decades to 100,000 people.

Tom Salvetti and his dog Kelsey. (Photo by Martin Di Caro)

“I think we are going to win, although you never know. It’s never done until it’s done, but we are very confident that the county supervisors, the congressional delegation, everyone has looked at this and said, we can’t destroy this,” said Tom Salvetti, who lives next to the park, where he walks his German Shepherd Kelsey daily.

One reason why Salvetti and his neighbors love Tysons “last forest” is its abundance of wildlife. A WAMU reporter walking the park’s leafy trails with Salvetti on Monday spotted a small herd of deer.

“And there are at least four bucks in these woods as well,” said Salvetti, who said he regularly sees fox, turtles, aquatic birds, woodpeckers, and other creatures near the forest’s stream which runs underneath Pike 7 Plaza and all the way to the Potomac.

“Having woods here in Tysons Corner is very important. Walk around Tysons. It’s all concrete and this is green space. This is dirt. This is nature,” he said.

Neighbor Lance Medric praised county leaders for listening to the complaints of residents, more than 600 of whom signed a petition, who opposed the highway plan.

“It means saving the few last trees that are still around. Everybody talks about it but it’s a lot easier to get rid of them. And this is a natural barrier between thousands of single family homes and a city,” he said.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors are expected to take the proposal to build the connection to the Dulles Toll Road through the forest off the table today. The ramp would have connected the Toll Road to an extended Boone Boulevard.

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Transportation Nation

NYC to Add Citywide 'Wayfinding' Maps to Encourage Walking, Business

Monday, January 14, 2013

(Image courtesy of NYC DOT)

Even with smartphone maps, a waffle iron street grid and numbered streets in most of Manhattan, too many pedestrians are getting lost in New York City according to the NYC Department of Transportation. The solution, or part of it, will begin rolling out in March: maps. Lots of them. Designed just for pedestrians to be placed on sidewalks and eventually on bike share stations all around the five boroughs.

"We have a great system of signage for cars, but we don't have a good system of signage for people," said Jeanette Sadik-Khan, NYC's Transportation Commissioner. (Earlier this week she unveiled newly designed, and less cluttered, parking signs). Starting in March, New York City will install 150 'wayfinding' signs on sidewalks in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens as part of a citywide system that will roll out in phases at a cost of $6 million, most of it borne by the federal government, the rest by local business improvement districts.*

A sample of what NYC's new wayfinding maps will look like. Courtesy NYC DOT.

The sidewalk signage will show pedestrians where they are and which way they are facing -- a study last year found that many New Yorkers couldn't point to north when asked. Transit, local attractions, and businesses are placed on a large map of the local street grid with  circles indicating where you can reach with a five minute walk, and how long it will take to get to other attractions. Like countdown clocks in subways, knowing the time and effort involved in a trip can make it more appealing. The signs, the DOT hopes, will encourage more walking.

"We're very excited about it and think it will be a big boon, not only for visitors ... but also for business." A slowly ambling customer visiting a new neighborhood, or a new route, is much more likely to check out a new shop than a driver is to stop, park, and peek in.

"New York is a perfect place to have a wayfinding system because nearly one third of all trips are made by foot," Sadik-Khan said. A little encouragement to walk could be a tipping point to leave the car at home, she says, pointing out that a quarter of all car trips in NYC are less than a mile, a distance people could walk.

The signs will roll out in Chinatown, Midtown Manhattan, Long Island City, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. "These are heavily foot trafficked areas," she says. "The lessons that we learn there... will help us as we build a bigger system citywide."

When bike share stations are installed in May, they will include these maps. That would add several hundred more pedestrian maps in many new neighborhoods.

Here's a full length sample:

Sample design of NYC's wayfinding maps. Courtesy NYC DOT.

 

*An earlier version of this post stated that the majority of the cost of the project would be borne by business improvement districts.

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State of the Re:Union

State of the Re:Union: Internet Communities

Saturday, January 12, 2013

At this point in the 21st century, it’s kind of impossible to talk about community-building without, at some point, talking about the internet. The way we meet people, establish connections, maintain our relationships and fight for what we believe in has been radically transformed by the web—and it’s still transforming.
But often, when we’re talking about these changes, the focus is either on pure enthusiasm about the possibilities presented by the limitlessness of the web, or anxiety about online connections replacing physical ones.

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Transportation Nation

D.C. Planners: Regional Job Growth Should Focus On 'Activity Centers'

Friday, January 11, 2013

(Photo CC by Flickr user Metal Chris)

Here's a strategy for growth. Build new housing where the action is. And that means around transit lines.

In the Washington D.C. area, regional planners have mapped out nearly 140 "activity centers" around the capital that they say should be the focus of future job and population growth.

An activity center is a densely-built housing, office, and retail space located on a major transportation corridor. Many of the 139 dots on the map unanimously approved by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments are located within D.C. city limits; others branch out into Maryland and Virginia along existing and future Metro lines.

It's a suggested guide for future growth mapped in stipple and meant to guide the coming population growth to areas like Mary Hynes' neighborhod. Hynes is vice chairman of the council's Region Forward coalition and resident of an activity center. "I live a block from the Clarendon Metro," she says. "The practical effect is I get in my car about once a week. I can walk to grocery stores or I can walk to the dry cleaner. I can walk to my job or take a bus to my job. It s a great quality of life."

While Arlington County is well known for building mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods around Metro stations, other places are catching up. Prince George's County has 15 Metro stations, but some are undeveloped.

"By focusing growth around those Metro stations, we will be able to receive some return on that investment and we will build on an infrastructure that already exists," says Al Dobbins, the county's Deputy Planning Director. "That precludes the need to go out and build even more transportation infrastructure."

The activity centers map was drafted in 2002 and last updated in 2007.

Click to enlarge

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Transportation Nation

Chris Quinn: Don't Talk About Bike Lanes at Dinner Parties

Friday, January 11, 2013

Bike lanes are now not good dinner party conversation.  So says New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.  "Bike lanes, I put that now in the category of things you shouldn't discuss at dinner parties, right? It used to be money and politics and religion.  Now in New York you should add bike lanes," the 2013 candidate for Mayor said, chuckling, as a luncheon audience of Broadway and tourism officials chuckled with her.

(For a famous dinner party conversation about bike lanes, read here.)

"Start wherever you want," urged WNYC's Brian Lehrer, who was hosting the event.  "But talk about bike lanes, and pedestrian malls, and all things Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan."

More chuckling.

"Bike lanes are clearly controversial," Quinn said. "And one of the problems with bike lanes -- and I'm generally a supporter of bike lanes --  but one of the problems with bike lanes has been not the concept of them, which I support, but the way the Department of Transportation has implemented them without consultation with communities and community boards. "

The City DOT disputes that, and has provided reams of evidence over the years of community board interest in bike lanes.

In her remarks, Quinn kind of acknowledged that, but still maintained there wasn't enough community notification.

"So, for example in Chelsea, the Ninth Avenue bike lane south of 23rd street was put in place -- and the Community Board Four loves the bike lane, LOVES the bike lane, been asking for bike lanes for years and years and years.  It was put in on Ninth Avenue without notification to my office, and I was speaker at the time.

"That's a problem, right?," Quinn went on. "That's a problem particularly in a community like Chelsea, where there is such interest in bike lanes but then you just create tension. It's also a problem for example in Lew Fidler's district in Brooklyn, where I'd say the jury's mixed about bike lanes.  They were okay with the idea of the bike lane, they just wanted it moved one block over. "

Quinn's remarks -- a variation of which have been uttered by many of the Democratic candidates running for Mayor -- came despite polls showing bike lanes are favored by a majority of New Yorkers.

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Transportation Nation

Pulaski Skyway to Close for Two Years; No New Rail Tunnel on Horizon

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Pulaski Skyway (photo by Paul Lowry via flickr)

The Pulaski Skyway -- an 80-year old elevated highway that carries 67,000 cars a day in New Jersey -- will partially close for two years beginning in 2014.

The highway runs between Newark and Jersey City and serves as a major feeder for cars and buses accessing the Holland Tunnel into downtown Manhattan. It will shut down to traffic after the completion of the 2014 Super Bowl, being held in the nearby Meadowlands.

The NJ Department of Transportation says it needs that time to entirely replace the existing deck, upgrade ramps, paint and seismically retrofit the Pulaski, which is in "poor condition." The work will cost $1 billion.

While deck work is ongoing, northbound lanes will be closed entirely for two years. Two southbound travel lanes will remain open.

Speaking Thursday in Newark, the state's transportation commissioner, James Simpson, said the work amounts to "basically a new bridge in place." He acknowledged the disruption closing the roadway would cause, but said "we couldn't leave it in its existing state. The only decision was to reconstruct it in place."

The Pulaski is considered "functionally obsolete" because it no longer conforms to modern design standards, and in 2011 the Texas Transportation Institute rated it the sixth least reliable road in the country. (It also ranked #8 on Jalopnik's less scientific list of "the most terrifying roads in the world.") The state says the work will extend the life of the structure by at least 75 years.

The closure of the roadway will have a ripple effect. Drivers who head north to enter the city via the Lincoln Tunnel will find not only crowds, but delays from another massive rehabilitation project -- the Port Authority's ongoing upgrade of the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel known as the helix. Meanwhile, NJ Transit has reached maximum capacity and can't run additional trains into Penn Station. The PATH system is similarly burdened.

As Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow with the Regional Plan Association, puts it: "The automobile options are now worse for two years, and there's no relief in site from point of view of a new rail crossing."

Zupan is referring to the ARC project, an $8.7 billion trans-Hudson tunnel that, when completed, would have boosted rail capacity between New Jersey and New York. Construction on the new tunnel began in 2009 -- only to be cancelled in 2010 by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who said the state couldn't afford it.

Christie is using the money set aside for the ARC tunnel to shore up roads and bridges in the state -- among them, the Pulaski Skyway.

Preliminary work is underway on a study for the next iteration of a new rail tunnel -- this one known as Gateway -- but shovels are nowhere near ready to turn dirt.

"You've really created a perfect storm of transportation chaos -- you haven't created a new transit option and you've made driving options worse," says Zupan.

Another view of the Pulaski, spanning the Passaic & Hackensack Rivers in Jersey City (CC via wikimedia commons)

The Skyway is named for General Casimir Pulaski, a Polish-born hero of the Revolutionary War. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. And it was also referenced in Orson Welles' 1938 radio drama War of the Worlds. "The enemy now turns east," reads a line in the script, "crossing Passaic River into the Jersey marshes. Another straddles the Pulaski Skyway."

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Transportation Nation

Fairfax Board To Vote On Tysons Tax Hike

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Metro Rail construction from Tyson's Corner to East Falls Church station on Route 267 in Northern Virginia. (Photo by Trevor Wrayton, VDOT)

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) More than two years after adopting a plan to modernize Tysons Corner, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will decide Tuesday night whether to raise real estate taxes to help pay for the area's new transportation grid.

Both businesses and residential properties in Tysons Corner would be taxed to raise $250 million over 40 years to help pay for road improvements to accommodate expected population and job growth. Although commercial real estate developers are not objecting to the creation of this special tax district — they will benefit most from Tysons' growth — residential property owners are very unhappy.

While the board had contemplated making residential property owners exempt from the new taxes, that may not actually be possible, says Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova.

"We were all a little bit surprised when we discovered that wasn't a possibility because of recent legislation at the state level," Bulova says.

At least one Virginia state lawmaker says he will introduce legislation to exempt residential properties or allow them to pay a lower tax rate. Bulova believes that would make it fair for apartment dwellers who don't stand to financially gain from future economic growth around the four planned Silver Line Metro stops in Tysons.

"If you are an existing residential homeowner, you are not going to be able to redevelop your property and you are not going to see the same kind of benefit as a developer," Bulova says.

The $250 million in new taxes is part of a total $2.3 billion needed to build a multi-modal transportation grid at Tysons Corner, county lawmakers say. Planners expect 100,000 people to live and 200,000 to work in Tysons Corner by 2050.

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Transportation Nation

This Man Keeps Fond NYC Subway Memories Alive with Impressive Model Train Hobby

Monday, January 07, 2013

BMT line #7 "Green Hornet," 16 is the MS car, 1 is the D-motor. MT "D Motor" Triplex Car - courtesy Richard Dornhelm.

Millions of people in this country have hobbies. There’s stamp collecting, role playing games, beer making -- you name it, it’s out there.

And then there's my dad, Richard Dornhelm. He grew up in New York City in the 1940s and '50s and fell in love with the city's trains -- especially the ones running underground.

"I'm a civil engineer by training," he says now. "And I'm a Brooklyn boy by birth. We never had a car; we had a subway. We took the subway to my grandma’s house or we took the subway to museums. Took the subway to Coney Island. We took the subway pretty much everywhere we went."

When he was little, Dad and his brother Mark always stood at the front of the first car, where they’d stare out the huge front window as the trains barreled down the track.

[Listen to the audio version of this story at KQED]

"There wasn’t much to see in a tunnel," Dad says. "So it was really the anticipation that this train would take you somewhere and you’d come out of this hole in the ground and be in a very different place. A different world."

Dad grew up in Brooklyn -- near the Church Avenue station, on the F line -- and stayed there until he finished college. He eventually landed in California where he met my mom, who also grew up near the Church Avenue stop. When I was growing up, he only rode the subway when we went back East to visit family.

And then 15 years ago, he went to a railway museum in Rio Vista, a river town near Sacramento. And there he found some of the original 1880s steam-powered cars that once ran on Manhattan’s elevated tracks.

The two cars survived because they'd been sold for use in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond -- across the bay from San Francisco. After seeing them, my dad went home and started thinking about how to build replicas by hand, remembering subway modeling he’d done as a teen. And then the project just sort of took off.

One car led to another, and one subway line led to the next -- the old BMT, the Independent, and so on. You can see where this is going.

"I never intended to end up with 100 cars," Dad says.

But he did. And now my parents' living room in what is otherwise a simple 1970s tract home in Walnut Creek looks like a New York City rail yard. Dad's hand-crafted cars are about a foot long, of all colors, from all eras. They've won awards and run in holiday shows at Manhattan's Grand Central Station. There are antique-looking ones with paneled wooden sides and tiny bare lightbulbs. And there are shiny new stainless steel.

My dad allows that other people "don't look at subways the same way I do." Asked to explain, he adds: "I think they’re a marvel of ingenuity and even if they are a hole in the ground, it still has really produced enormous benefits for the people in the cities.”

My own kids have love for Dad's trains, too, driving them on a mock elevated track he's built. They can't really understand the hundreds of hours of work these incredibly detailed, built-from-scratch trains represent.

There are turquoise-and-white cars, replicas of cars built for a World's Fair. There's the 1930s “Green Hornet,” originally made of aluminum and shaped like a BART train, but scrapped because of World War II. And then there's the bright orange refrigerator car, something he remembers from the 1950s.

"The doors would open and people from the neighborhood would go up and buy crates of wine-making grapes," Dad remembers. "It was largely an Italian neighborhood. I remember I first heard about California because those orange refrigerator cars were from this place called California. Wonderful place I thought. Too bad the subway doesn’t go there."

Over the holidays, I watched my Dad sanding wood in his workshop, which used to be my room.  His father was a toolmaker and my Dad uses some of those tools as he works.

I’m struck by how much these models bring together: My dad and his father. Our families in California and Brooklyn. My dad’s childhood with his grandkids’. I can’t help but admire the cars' artistry as we look at them. He reminds me some of them will be mine someday.

“You don’t have to keep them all," he says. "You can just pick a few. And remember the subway… and remember me. What else can I say?"

To see more photos head over to KQED's The California Report where this article originally appeared. There's also a charming video of a model train pulling into a model El station and passengers "get on" the train with no seeming human hand at the puppet strings. Or go see the real things at the NY Transit Museum

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Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW Washington, D.C: Silver Lines, Express Lanes, Gentrification, and Scandal

Monday, December 31, 2012

(photo by Wally G)

The Washington D.C. metropolitan region saw major developments in transportation that included progress toward completing the largest public rail project in the country, the opening of a new highway on the Beltway, and an update on D.C.’s coming streetcar system. 2012 also raised questions critical to the region’s economic future.  In a region plagued by some of the worst highway traffic congestion in the nation and a public rail system crowded to capacity, how can transportation planners and real estate developers maximize the region’s economic potential in a climate of finite funding for major projects.

1) The Silver Line

When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the county’s involvement in the $5.5 billion project that will connect D.C. to Dulles International Airport, lawmakers removed the last major obstacle to completing the Metro rail line by 2018.  Outstanding issues remain, however.  The most controversial issue is the Silver Line’s financing plan, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.  Without further federal or Virginia state funding, motorists on the Dulles Toll Road will cover half the Silver Line’s costs.

2) I-495 Express Lanes

A new highway is big news in this region. After six years of construction, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes opened on Nov. 17 on the 495 Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and the I-95 interchange in Fairfax County.  Drivers using the HOT lanes may get a faster ride, but the project raised questions about the wisdom of highway expansion as a method of solving congestion as well as the pitfalls of funding megaprojects: without the public-private partnership between Virginia and the international road building company Transurban, the road would not be built.  Virginia gets a $2 billion road, and Transurban gets the toll revenues for 75 years.

3) Transit and Gentrification

Washington, D.C. is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the United States.  While rising property values, economic development, and a growing number of residents living a car-free existence are transforming the District for the better, gentrification has its costs.

4) The Uber Battle for the Ages

After months of contention, the D.C. Council finally approved legislation legalizing the popular sedan car service Uber.  This battle was strange -- and it got personal. Legislators and regulators seemed to tie themselves in knots figuring out to handle the unregulated Uber while the district’s own taxicab industry struggled to modernize.  In the end Uber won.  And so did smartphone-using, taxicab-hailing residents of D.C.

5) MWAA’s woes

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates two major airports, rarely caught the public’s attention.  But after the authority took control of the Silver Line, however, the public’s attention intensified – and not for good reasons.  Audits by the U.S. Department of Transportation and news reports unearthed a litany of shady contracting, hiring, and travel policies and practices.  Critics have relentlessly pressed for changes to the plan to raise tolls significantly to pay for the Silver Line. MWAA is making changes but has not yet recovered the public’s trust.

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