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INTERVIEW: Author Jeff Speck Explains What Makes a City Walkable

Friday, January 04, 2013

 

Manhattan pedestrians, stepping peppily (photo by Kate Hinds)

Manhattan pedestrians, stepping peppily (photo by Kate Hinds)

LISTEN to this interview that aired on Marketplace or read a summary below. 

(Sarah Gardner -- Marketplace) What makes a city walkable? According to Jeff Speck, the author of "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time," a walk has to be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting if you're going to get people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks.

"The pedestrian has to have a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles," says Speck, "but also the streets need to be comfortable in the way they're shaped by buildings, and you can't have a bunch of blank walls and parking lots to walk by."

Speck says that 77 percent of Millennials want to live urban cores. Of course, New York, Chicago and San Francisco have done a good job keeping their cities pedestrian-friendly, but Speck says no city has put the thought into walkability that Portland, Ore., has.

"The VMT [vehicle miles traveled] of your typical Portlander peaked in 1996," says Speck who lauds Portland for a long-term strategy to minimize the importance of the car, "and as a result, one economist has calculated that about 3.5 percent of GDP is money saved by driving less."

Many cities are doing good things to make their cities more walkable, but Speck says most average American cities still have a long way to go to become truly walkable. Why? The car is still the driving force in city planning.

"A city is being planned not by its mayor," says Speck, "but by a public works director who is responding to complaints about traffic and parking."


The majority of Americans still drive alone in a car to and from work. But in cities and states across the nation, the commuter population is turning to carpools, public transportation, walking, and bikes. Explore this interactive map on how America gets to work.

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Transportation Nation

Carmakers Bet on Green Future

Monday, December 31, 2012

(photo by Mariordo59 via flickr)

(Adam Allington -- Marketplace) 2012 was a record year for fuel economy, with an average 23.5 miles per gallon. That trend is expected to continue next year.

Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst for Edumunds.com, says increasing fuel economy laws continue to drive the market, and the rewards for research and development are huge. Just ask Toyota, she says:

"Every automaker wants to have that car that is like the Prius, and really stands for moving forward, technology, fuel efficiency. So, I think it is in their best interest to create these vehicles."

In 2013 six new hybrid models and eight more plug-ins will be sold across the country. And while the fuel efficiency of regular old internal-combustion engines is also improving, Caldwell says automakers are still banking on hybrid technology.

"They're definitely going to win out in the long run. So it's not a short-term strategy, but a long-term strategy."

Right now, hybrid or all-electric cars make up only three percent of the market, up from just 0.2 percent a decade ago.

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Transportation Nation

Drought Lowers Mississippi, Holding Up Barge Traffic

Friday, December 28, 2012

The confluence of the St. Croix (TOP) and Mississippi Rivers (BOTTOM) is seen from the air on May 31, 2012. (Karen Bleier/AFP-Getty Images)

(Eve Troeh, Marketplace) This year's drought is plaguing more than farmers. The Mississippi River is at its lowest water level in decades, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in emergency mode to keep barge traffic moving.

A stretch of the river from St. Louis, Missouri to Cairo, Illinois is so low right now, jagged bedrock is close to the surface. That could scrape or even puncture the huge barges that silently float the river. Each one normally carries 70 semi trucks worth of very heavy stuff, and they ship in groups 40 or so barges at a time.

Lynn Muench, Senior Vice President of Regional Affairs with American Waterways Operators, a trade group, says barges mostly ship heavy things that would be too expensive to send by rail or truck alone. That includes petroleum products, chemicals, sand, gravel, and salt for the roads this time of year.

One timely load some of these stalled barges are carrying? Fertilizer for spring planting.

She says the fleets of barges have lightened their loads, so they don't sink so deep in the water. For the next several week, barring heavy rain, the boat captains will have to have to line up all day, waiting, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers breaks up the rock. They can only pass in the night, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

"The price to move everything has almost doubled," says Muench.

She says the Army Corps should've seen this coming and busted up the rocks sooner. Mike Petersen, a corps spokesman in St. Louis, recognizes that the slowdown is annoying, but notes it is the best option, long-term.

"This is something that'll give us a permanent improvement in that stretch," he says.

He expects to finish the work in a few weeks. The drought, he says, could go on for years.

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Transportation Nation

Uncovered: The Secret Routes of Silicon Valley Company Shuttles

Thursday, December 27, 2012

@jimgreer posted this photo of a Google bus on Twitter: "@google bus stuck at 23rd and Chattanooga."

(Queena Kim - Marketplace) By now you’ve heard about the perks that come with working in Silicon Valley. Free lunch, 20 percent time -- that’s the work time you can use to pursue independent projects.

Well, another perk? A private bus that picks you up in your neighborhood in San Francisco and shuttles you down to your corporate campus about an hour south in the suburbs of Silicon Valley.

During rush hour in San Francisco, you see them everywhere, said Eric Rodenbeck, the creative director of Stamen Design in the Mission District of San Francisco.

“They’re just so big," Rodenbeck says. "These buses are two stories high and they’re barrelling down residential streets, and no one knows where they’re going except the people who are on them.”

Rodenbeck is talking about the private shuttle buses that run up and down the Peninsula. They look like fancy tour buses. Google’s buses are white. Facebook’s are a sleek blue. But beyond that, they’re sort of a mystery to most San Franciscans.

“You know it’s almost like this masonic ritual,” Rodenbeck says.  "If you've got the key, this whole other city layer unlocks itself to you. And that’s the kind of urban puzzle we like to solve."

So, Stamen decided to map the private shuttle buses connecting San Francisco to Silicon Valley.

(image courtesy of Stamen Design)

But getting the data wasn’t easy. The tech companies don’t comment on the buses. They don’t tell you where they stop or how many people ride on them. But in the era of big data, the information was easy enough to find.

“Even though the companies might not have wanted their locations public, we started looking around and we realized on Foursquare -- if you typed in “shuttle” and “google” or “shuttle” and “apple” all these locations came up because their employees were checking in at those bus stops,” Rodenbeck says.

Stamen also hired bike messengers to follow the buses. And then they had people just sit at a cafe on the corner of 18th and Dolores and count the people getting on and off the buses.

I checked out the Google bus stop a little after 7 a.m. one rainy morning and the “G-bus,” as the display on its windshield reads, was already picking up Googlers. For the next few hours, the buses would arrive in 15-20 minute intervals and a steady stream of 20-30 somethings, holding coffee cups and wearing sneakers and backpacks, would get on board.

It might have been the early morning hour or the rain but few people were willing to talk. When I approached a group of 20-somethings and asked them about the bus, they said they couldn’t talk because Google was in "a quiet period." A quiet period is when a company can’t say anything that might affect its stock price, and that was the nicest response I got until I met 35-year-old Tanya Birch, who works on the Google Earth outreach team. I asked her what it’s like on the bus.

“It’s pretty sweet,” Birch said. “They let us choose the type of seats and decor inside. And it’s got dim lighting with the Google colors.”

There’s also free Wi-Fi on the shuttles, and Birch said it's basically another hour of work.

The tech world is driven by young, educated largely urban workers. But companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are located in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, which is about an hour south of the San Francisco.

“I think a lot of young people who work at the tech companies they want the city life they want something that’s fun and entertaining, and you don’t get that in the suburbs,” Birch said.

So,  to compete for that talent pool, big tech companies have to provide transportation. Rodenbeck says he expected to find the shuttles in the city’s hip, young neighborhoods.

“What we were surprised to learn is that the network is much more extensive than that,” says Rodenbeck.

When the map was finished, Stamen counted buses from Apple, eBay, Electronic Arts, Facebook, Google and Yahoo, and they found the buses ran through almost every neighborhood in San Francisco. Stamen estimates that about 14,000 people ride the private shuttle buses every day.

Rodenbeck says he thinks the locations are secret because the companies are “sensitive to this idea that they are funding a change in the infrastructure in San Francisco without it being regulated.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is in the midst of studying what’s essentially emerging as a private mass-transportation system, says Jerry Robbins, a transportation planner for the agency.

“The increase in employer buses has sparked some reaction from residents,” Robbins says.

He says that since tech companies contract out the work to private bus companies, which are regulated by the state, the city has little say in what they do.

But Robbins says the agency has fielded complaints that the the private shuttle buses, which often stop at public bus stops, are causing delays and traffic.

Another impact is rising real estate prices, says Amanda Jones, a realtor in San Francisco for nearly a decade. Today, about half her clients work in the tech industry.

“Unquestionably the shuttle stops are transforming real estate values,” Jones says. “When I interview new clients, we get out the real estate map and they want to show me where their corporate shuttles are. I recently sold a house. He does trading for Google and gets in early in the morning. Literally, if it wasn’t five blocks from a shuttle stop, we didn’t look at it.”

Jones says even fixers-uppers and homes with shaky foundations are selling for a premium if they’re located near a private shuttle bus stop.

“They have so little time to have with family and their friends they want to go home and be able to walk to the restaurant and not be stuck in their car for two hours,” says Jones.

Jones says she gets it because until someone comes up with an app that can beam you to work, the private shuttle bus is as close as you get.

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Freakonomics Radio

How Much Does a Good Boss Really Matter?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's harder than you'd think to measure the value of a boss. But some enterprising economists have done just that -- and the news is good.

Comments [1]

Transportation Nation

Carmakers Developing Hi-Tech Biometric Sensors for Drivers

Friday, December 21, 2012

(Bob Moon -- Marketplace) Here's the next big thing in car technology: biometric monitors. They could one day be used to track everything from a driver's stress level to blood-sugar levels. Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus are among the carmakers that are busy doing research to take us down that road.

Ford technician Jeff Greenberg, who is leading the carmaker's research into the use of biometric monitors, says the car of the future could be equipped to keep track of you in much more intimate ways. Among the monitors that Ford has been researching, he says, are sensors embedded in the steering wheel that can measure galvanic skin response -- "basically how sweaty your palms are," he explains. Seat belt sensors can monitor breathing rates.

Based on what your car decides, Greenberg says, your cell phone might not ring through at just the moment you're likely experiencing  sensory overload in heavy traffic. The trick to having your car second-guess your driving abilities is figuring out what's helpful, or could just be more distracting.

IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland says she and most of her colleagues ended up ignoring a new dashboard warning indicator that was featured on a new Mercedes Benz model they were recently invited to test-drive. The coffee-cup icon is supposed to signal that you might be drowsy, but she says it popped up for everyone who drove the test car.

"At first we didn't know if it was telling us to go to the nearest Starbucks, or what it really meant," Lindland says.

Most of the current technology is based on cameras and radar that watch the road. But the new experiments with biometric sensors take things to a whole new level. So, could a car be programmed to stop automatically if it sensed, say, a heart attack? Greenberg stresses that the data won't be used to diagnose health conditions.

"They're not designed as medical-grade sensors," Greenberg explains. "We are not going to turn the car into an FDA-certified medical device."

Lindland, at IHS Automotive, wonders if prospective car buyers will be attracted, or might just be put off by systems that go too far. She suggests car dealers will have their work cut out for them: "Nobody goes in looking for a car that takes your pulse, you know?"

Even Ford's own advertising is already treading lightly when it comes to presenting your car as a nag. A video promoting the automaker's "lane-keeping alert system" says the car gives "a gentle suggestion that it might be time to stop and take a break," although the warning chime does become "more insistent" if you keep going.

Ford's Greenberg says the new biometric technology isn't likely to be employed right away, but will become familiar to drivers eventually. He promises that designers are focused on being helpful, not invasive.

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Transportation Nation

VIDEO: Transportation Nation's Mug. It Can Be Yours.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Action shot from "Multi-Modal Mug" shot film by Amy Pearl / WNYC

At Transportation Nation, we serve up serious news, with flair, style, and a flash of java.

Rejoice. (And get a tax deduction, too.) You can own a Transportation Nation coffee mug.

'What's so exciting about a coffee mug?' you might ask. 'It doesn't run on a smart grid or move at the speed of a bullet train." But, friends, it is a reminder to you of all the value this site has brought you in 2012. And your donation shows our reporters here at TN that you care.

Plus, the video is hilarious. We present to you the multi-modal mug. Yours as a thank-you gift for a donation of $5 / month to our ad-free, nonprofit public media project.

If you won't donate, consider sending this around to your friends who might.

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Freakonomics Radio

Have a Very Homo Economicus Christmas

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Who better than an economist to help with your shopping list?

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Transportation Nation

(UPDATED) Uber Now Legal in D.C.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

(photo by David Carmelo via flickr)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The battle between Uber the taxi hailing app and the District of Columbia is over.

After clashing for months over proposed regulations that Uber's CEO once claimed would cripple his business, the D.C. Council voted Tuesday to approve legislation creating a sedan class of vehicles-for-hire – separate from taxis – that will allow Uber to charge its customers fares based on distance and time as "digital dispatch" vehicles.

D.C. had been one of the more drawn out and contentious efforts to expand for Uber, and that says a lot. Uber has taken a confrontational approach to growing it's business from it's start in San Francisco a few years ago. Chicago sued the company for violating local regulations on pricing disclosure and safety. San Francisco has fined the company for breaking regulations on driver insurance. This summer Boston issued a cease and desist order to Uber.  New York chased the company out of it's iconic yellow cabs saying it violated safety regulations among others. Taxi unions in several cities have also filed suit against the upstart tech company.

The D.C. ruling isn't likely a harbinger of amity between those other cities and Uber. The D.C. council created a separate class of cab that can use Uber. Official metered city taxi cab drivers still can't use the app to snag passengers. New York, for example, already has such a category for non-metered livery cars that are permitted to use Uber all they want.

The ruling is, however, is certain to embolden Uber's confrontational growth strategy.

“Today was a fantastic victory for Uber but also for innovation, for our consumers here, and the drivers that partner with us,” said Rachel Holt, Uber’s general manager in Washington, D.C.  She thanked customers for helping convince the council as well as the District’s taxi cab commissioner to back away from more stringent regulations CEO Travis Kalanick once described as “from the draconian to the inane.”

“It's not about anything we did or won. I think what really won was that the fact that we have a passionate consumer base here,” she said. Over the past several months Uber customers flooded council members with complaints about proposals that threatened the company’s business model.

Uber’s black sedans are not hailed on the street. Instead, customers use Uber's smart phone app to order a car to their location using the phone’s GPS and pay with a registered credit card number.

The new legislation requires greater pricing transparency.

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Transportation Nation

At L.A. Auto Show, a Big Star Is a Gas-Powered Engine (AUDIO)

Friday, November 30, 2012

The glamour of the internal combustion engine, enhanced with mood lighting, was on display at the L.A. Auto Show (Photo by David Weinberg for Marketplace)

Ed Note: Our partners at Marketplace put together this quick audio preview of the L.A. Auto Show. It's well worth a listen, even if just for the electric vehicle mood music. Or ... you can read the post below.

(David Weinberg, Los Angeles -- Marketplace) This week, it's all about cars in L.A. It's that time of year when the car companies unveil their latest models at the2012 Los Angeles Auto Show.

If you walked into the convention center and scanned the room, you would think that electric cars and hybrids were a big part of the market. Toyota, Honda and Chevy all unveiled new vehicles. The head of FIAT, Olivier Francois, compared his company's new electric model to a male enhancement drug.

"The blue pill element here is that it not only delivers great performance, it also lasts longer," he said.

In reality, hybrids and electrics make up a very small segment of the market. Even five years from now, they expect to be only 5 percent of the market.

One problem is price. The electric FIAT will cost about $45,000. That's three times as much as the gasoline version. And FIAT will still lose $10,000 on each one it sells.

Another option for consumers looking for affordable fuel efficiency: The internal combustion engine.

"There's almost nothing conventional about the internal combustion engine any longer," says John O'Dell, a senior editor at Edmunds. When he started writing about the auto industry 20 years ago, experts predicted they could squeeze 10, maybe 15 percent more efficiency out of an internal combustion engine. Now he says, "From where we are today, which is way past 15 percent, they are talking 30, 40, 50 percent more out of the internal combustion engine."

In the most elaborate unveiling of the day, Ford corralled hundreds of journalists and executives in an empty parking lot to watch stunt driver Ken Block do donuts in a souped-up Fiesta.

Starting next year Ford will offer a three-cylinder version of the Fiesta that will get up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway and put out more horsepower than its four-cylinder predecessor. Its secret is a turbo charger.

"We're going see more downsizing of engines. The use of turbo charging to make smaller engines more powerful" O'Dell says.

The future, it turns out, may look a lot like the past, just a little smaller.

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Freakonomics Radio

Free-conomics

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Economists are a notoriously self-interested bunch. But a British outfit called Pro Bono Economics is giving away its services to selected charities.

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Transportation Nation

Kansas City Citizens Fund Civic Project with Donations

Friday, November 16, 2012

Streetcar operating southbound on Main Street at 19th Street, Kansas City, MO (Photo via Kansas City Area Transportation Authority)

(Russel Newlove, Kansas City -- Marketplace) After being denied a federal grant, Kansas City, MO intends to raise the money for a new streetcar system by passing around a hat. The idea is that instead of demanding more tax to fund projects, cities ask the public to donate whatever they want, in return for rewards or perks.

That's the theory behind Neighborly, a new civic crowdfunding start up in Kansas City, MO.

"It helps these communities pool together money from individual contributors, businesses and foundations and institutions," says Jase Wilson, founder of Neighborly.

His idea is simple. Organizations propose a project that benefits the community. Neighborly then builds a system online allowing the public to donate directly to that project. The bigger the donation, the bigger the perk. Right now, he's working on getting local businesses involved in raising $75 million for the new streetcar system.

"If they're located near the line, then they can pre-buy rides for all of their workforce," Wilson says, "and when you talk about a company that has a thousand people, and they can pre-buy rides for say five years, they can write that off in five different ways off of their taxes and get golden PR while doing a world of good."

But it's not just about amassing cash. It's about investing in communities and raising awareness of how individuals, organizations and businesses can work together to improve their areas.

Kansas City Mayor, Sly James, is on board. "Neighborly has done a number of things that have found ways to engage people in the fabric of the community and make actual contributions in order to achieve very specific social or community purposes," James says, "It' s a brilliant idea."

It's brilliance lies in the visibility of the project. Instead of just paying into a vague "tax" pot, contributors invest in a tangible product.

"It allows people to pick and choose those things that are important to them and make direct investments to it," says the Mayor.

And while it might not replace the traditional revenue raising model of simple taxation, Neighborly is at aleast giving people the option to help finance their cities their way, and to truly say, "We built that."

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Transportation Nation

As Gov't Considers Regulations, Autonomous Car Boosters Show Off Plans

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Google executives show off a self-driving car. January 20, 2011

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) It’s the heart of the morning commute. A professional pulls his laptop computer from his brief case and begins typing emails to start his work day before arriving at the office. Minutes later the laptop is set aside for the newspaper, opened wide in front of his face so he can leisurely peruse the headlines. This scene plays out on mass transit systems every morning. It would be impossible while driving a car unless one is gifted with extra pairs of hands and eyes.

In the not-too-distant future, however, drivers who now grit their teeth while gripping the steering wheel may be able to sit back, relax, and use their car commuting time productively.

Three states, Florida, California and Nevada, have legalized testing of autonomous cars already and today, the federal government made a small show of support. “The development of automated vehicles is a worthy goal,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland told a  forum in Washington. He said the government is beginning to research what safety regulations are needed for a world where cars drive themselves.

Designers of self-driving – or autonomous – vehicles are promising the technology is moving closer to reality, creating a future where crashes, speeding tickets, congestion, poor fuel efficiency, and all the stress they cause will be history.

“It gives you the freedom to do what you are already doing in the car today but unsafely.  Today people sit in the car and they are texting. We have seen people on the freeway practicing the trombone. It is unbelievable what people do in a car,” said Chris Urmson, the leader of Google’s self-driving vehicle project based in California, who spoke at a seminar on the policy implications of autonomous vehicles at the Swedish embassy in Washington on Tuesday.

The seminar’s host, Volvo, a leader in autonomous vehicle research, tests its cars in Sweden and Spain. Google tests its cars in stop-and-go traffic in San Francisco as well as freeways in the Bay Area and Nevada.

Self-driving vehicles are years from becoming commonplace on U.S. roads, so it is impossible to fully grasp the dimensions of the changes that would be caused by the technology. Because the cars are being designed to navigate traffic more safely and smoothly than any human being can, developers see a future with fewer crashes and traffic violations and with dramatically reduced congestion. That would affect car insurers, law enforcement, safety regulators, and transportation planners.

“If you look at the carrying capacity of U.S. freeways when they are at maximum throughput – the most vehicles moving by per hour – they are only using about 8 percent of the road,” Urmson said. “If you imagine a vehicle that is reacting more quickly and steering more accurately than a person, then you can pack those vehicles more closely and you can take the same infrastructure we have today and easily double the throughput on it, removing congestion completely.”

More efficient use of existing highways would ease the pressure to build new ones, allowing planners to focus finite resources on other pressing infrastructure needs, Urmson said. In practice, congestion is unlikely to vanish for any technological reason, even if capacity is increased; research consistently finds that new drivers take to the roads once traffic time drops and over time, similar congestion levels resume.

Still, the promise of driver-less cars could brig many benefits. Future motorists would not have to relinquish complete control of their cars. They would have a choice between driving themselves or letting the computers, radar, laser, and image processing technology do it for them.

“It’s no fun to be in traffic jams at all,” said Peter Mertens, a senior vice president at Volvo, referring to a scenario when drivers might be happy to let the auto-pilot take over. “But when you are on a highway maybe you really enjoy driving.”

The primary goal of autonomous vehicles is saving lives by reducing the staggering number of traffic fatalities that happen in the U.S.  Relieving congestion is one way to make driving safer.

“[Autonomous vehicles] can be closer together and they can be optimized in the way they drive. You have a very smooth flowing traffic flow and no ups and downs and radical changes,” Mertens said.

Neither Mertens nor Urmson was able to estimate what a self-driving vehicle might cost compared to a regular car, but they said the technology is likely to be introduced into the U.S. vehicle fleet incrementally. Volvo and other carmakers already install adaptable cruise control in some vehicles, for instance.

Transferring driving responsibility from a person to a machine will raise legal issues. What if an autonomous car malfunctions and crashes or just violates a traffic law? To whom would a police officer write a ticket? Google is already in talks with U.S. regulators about it's autonomous car technology.

“If there is a malfunction, we have pretty established law about what that means,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford Law School. “A manufacturer or anyone else who is responsible for the malfunction will pay. The more difficult question about automated vehicles is what actually constitutes a malfunction.”

If autonomous vehicles actually do avoid crashes, auto insurers would have to adjust their rates, he said, potentially charging lower premiums to drivers who use the new technology.

“The hope in the long, long term is that insurance goes down as crashes go down. What that also means is that manufacturers end up paying a greater share of crash costs, then you could see prices for the car or navigation services increase.”

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Transportation Nation

Owning a Car, a Path Out of Poverty

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

(Photo CC by Flickr user David Sifry)

(By Shereen Marisol Meraji, Marketplace Money)

Single mom Vanessa Pacheco can't take the No. 27 bus the four miles from her house to her job. She manages a smoothie joint, and because smoothies are a popular breakfast in sunny, health-conscious San Diego, Pacheco has to be to work at 5 a.m. to open the store. The problem is that the 27 doesn't start running until nearly an hour after Pacheco has to be at work.

And Vanessa Pacheco doesn't have a car.

"Yeah, I got in a car accident," she says. "There was a cat in the middle of the road and as soon as I got there, I realized the kids were in the car and they were going to freak out that I killed a cat." Pacheco ended up hitting two cars instead of the cat, totaling hers. Nobody was hurt, which is a good thing because she doesn't have health insurance, and neither do her kids.

Pacheco did, however, have car insurance. But only liability. "If I would have had full coverage I could have at least got $1,000, and that would be a nice down payment on a car. But those are the things they don't tell you when you sign up for insurance."

The United Way of San Diego County is working with two local social service agencies (Community Resource Center and Jewish Family Service) to launch a program that will help working poor parents, like Pacheco, get car loans at low interest rates.

Shaina Gross, vice president of Impact Strategies at the United Way of San Diego, says she recognizes that owning a car is a huge financial responsibility, especially for people living on the edge of poverty. But after spending months interviewing poor and working class people, Gross says she's convinced a car does more good than harm to their bottom line, especially in San Diego where public transportation is spotty.

The program, called Ways to Work, stresses financial literacy, and case workers address client questions about insurance, budgeting and saving for the inevitable ticket and repairs. That's why Shaina Gross says it's so successful. "Forty-one percent of their clients have increased their take-home pay," says Gross. "And 82 percent of the participants were able to move off of public welfare programs." But Gross says it was her interviews with the recently homeless -- living in their cars at a safe parking lot run by a local nonprofit called Dreams for Change -- that really made her understand how essential a car can be.

"That's all we have," says Yolanda Cortez.

Cortez is a single mom with two sons, settling for the night at the Dreams for Change safe parking lot in southeast San Diego. Cortez was laid off from her office assistant job with the San Diego school district more than a year ago, but she had paid off her car when times were good. "There is no one who is gonna say, 'I'll give you a ride, I'll take your kids to school.' There is no support. So, I need my car."

Cortez uses her Acura to get to and from cosmetology school. She says she's confident this rocky patch will be over as soon as she graduates with a trade certificate. "I want the best for my kids," says Cortez, adding, "Hopefully with this experience I create some very, very well trained young men, and they'll have a legend and a story to tell."

Tonight her eight and eleven-year-old boys will go to sleep in the front seats of her Acura while Cortez curls up in the back.

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Transportation Nation

Atlanta's Tax-for-Transportation Vote Is Today

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Atlanta (photo by Matt Lemmon via flickr)

(Jim Burress - Atlanta, WABE for Marketplace) Atlanta traffic stinks. I live just eight miles from work, but it often takes an hour or more to get home. So, let's start the car, start the stopwatch and see how tonight's commute shapes up.

There's an acronym you're about to see a lot -- "T-SPLOST." Like "y'all" and "bless your heart," T-SPLOST is an expression that's inserted itself into our vernacular down here. It stands for "Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax." It's a 1 percent sales tax that over 10 years will generate more than $8 billion for regional transportation projects. It's safe to say everyone in Atlanta hates our traffic. It's just as safe to say that's where the agreement ends.

"If we are successful on Tuesday," says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, "we'll move the equivalent of 72,000 cars each day from our roads."

Governor Nathan Deal agrees. "We have to do something to address the transportation and transit needs of our state."

It's not every day Atlanta's Democratic mayor the Republican governor agree. But they -- and a lot of other unlikely allies - -are campaigning for the T-SPLOST. They say it will ease congestion and create jobs.

It might even make it easier to get to the ballgame, says Atlanta Braves executive VP Mike Plant. "The No. 1 reason year-in and year-out that people tell us they don't come to more games is because of the traffic."

That's the case for the transit tax. This is the case against. State Senator Vincent Fort, a Democrat, hates the measure. Sweat saturates his white "Vote No on T-SPLOST" T-Shirt as he knocks on Joyce Engram's front door. "This is going [to be a] tax on your groceries and your medicine," he tells her. "So I hope you'll vote against it."

If the T-SPLOST passes, Atlanta's sales tax would jump from 8 to 9 percent. The extra penny would go toward transportation.

Emgram tells Fort: "I'm going to vote against it. I needed to know. But I'm definitely going to vote against it. You can believe that."

As we continue down the street, Fort smiles at the thought of taking on big business, powerful politicians and well-funded interest groups. And possibly winning.

"We've got about $800," he says. "They've got about $8 million and we're beating 'em."

The "we" he's referring to is an unlikely alliance, including pro-transit folks, an environmental group, even the Tea Party.

"This coalition, this is unprecedented," says Debby Dooley, one of 22 original founders of the Tea Party. "You know when these coalitions [come] together -- groups that are normally on the opposite end of the spectrum -- come together in solidarity on the same issue, that should send huge red flags that this project list is seriously flawed."

Oh, the project list. Back here in my car, I've gone three miles in 23 minutes. I'm stuck on the "Downtown Connector," where Interstates 75 and 85 merge and run through the heart of the city. Fourteen lanes of stopped traffic. A few years ago the Connector made the list for the top 10 most congested roadways in the nation. But it's not one of the 157 projects the new tax would fund. That's one reason State Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers broke ranks with fellow Republicans to oppose the tax.

"A more reasonable approach," he says, "would be to have traffic engineers sit down, and literally list the most congested traffic problems in metro Atlanta."

Instead, a roundtable of local elected officials came up with the list. So if you're keeping track of who's cuddled up in this unlikely anti-T-SPLOST bed, we've got one of the state's top Republicans, a popular Democratic senator, and a founder of the Tea Party. Even the head of Georgia's Sierra Club is anti-T-SPLOST.

If the T-SPLOST passes, there's a lot of money in it for MARTA. No, that's not the name of another strange bedfellow. It is the name of our mass transit system. Connie Suhr rides MARTA a few days a week from her suburban home into downtown where she works. She admits it's a bit strange for someone who rides the train to oppose a project that expands the system. But she says this whole issue is a bit strange.

"I have aligned myself with people against the T-SPLOST that I would not normally have done," Suhr says. "I can't say particularly why. We all have our different reasons. But I also run into enough people who are in favor of it. I think it will be a very interesting fight."

Home: 49 minutes, 25 seconds. Not too bad, but I'm still a frazzled. Is a commute like that, 8 miles and three-quarters of an hour enough to get the tax passed? Polls suggest maybe not, but it's up to the voters to decide tomorrow.

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Transportation Nation

California Governor Campaigns for Infrastructure -- And His Legacy

Friday, July 27, 2012

California Governor Jerry Brown (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Ben Trefny - San Francisco, KALW - for Marketplace) In California, Governor Jerry Brown has been on the campaign trail. He's not up for re-election -- he's campaigning for massive infrastructure projects. He's been pushing some of these for decades. But why is he on the offensive now, when his state faces multi-billion-dollar deficits?

He acknowledged he's been at this a long time. "You know," he said at last week's signing of his $8 billion transportation bill, "I signed my first high-speed rail bill 30 years ago, it's taken that long to get things going."

High-speed rail isn't the only thing he's backing. He also wants a pair of tunnels to transfer water from northern to southern California. Cost? Anywhere from $14 billion to $24 billion, depending on your favorite estimate -- figures similar to the deficit California faces year after year.

If the projects do get built, they would be completed after the 74-year-old Brown is out of office. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters says that's part of the point: the lifelong politician once nicknamed Governor Moonbeam wants more of a concrete legacy. "He wants people to look back on him and say, "That Jerry, he did some really great stuff,'" said Walters, "rather than, 'Hey, Jerry, he was kind of crazy.' You know?"

There is one constant over Jerry Brown's long political career. He's always shooting for the moon.

Listen to the audio version of this story on the Marketplace Morning Report.

 

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Transportation Nation

Commuter Nation: How America Gets to Work (INTERACTIVE MAP)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Click the map. 

(Matt Berger and Katie Long -- Marketplace) America is a nation of drivers, particularly when it comes to how we get to work.

Across the country, the vast majority of us commute by car, and most of the time we’re alone, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau. But in some pockets of the U.S. there's a growing population of commuters taking public transportation, carpooling, walking, and even riding a bike.

To get a better look at how Americans get to work, TN partner Marketplace sifted through data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys to create an interactive map.

Here's what they wrote about the findings:

Using data from the 2010 survey (view data), we identified the number of people in each state who drive alone, carpool, and take public transportation. From the 2008 survey (view data), we identified the number of people in each state who walk or ride a bike.

Then we added up the total number of people represented in both surveys to determine the "total commuter population" for each state; There is a margin of error we didn't account for, maybe some people who still commute by horse-and-buggy, and the surveys are from different years, but you get the idea. A quick calculation gave us the share of commuters in each category by state.

I drive alone
In 43 states, more than three-quarters of the commuter population drive alone to work. Only New York was significantly lower -- with almost half of Empire State commuters saying they get work in other ways. The least carpool-friendly states by percent are Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

Share the road
Hawaii and Alaska lead the nation in carpool commuting. About 14 percent of their commuter populations share a ride to work. Most states reported somewhere between 8 percent and 11 percent in this commuter category.

More of us take the bus
Not surprisingly, states with major metropolitan populations and large public transit systems have the highest use of public transit: New York leads by a wide margin with about 28 percent of its commuter population taking a train, subway or bus. Massachusetts and Illinois came in at a distant second and third with about 9 percent of their respective commuter populations taking public transportation.

Meanwhile Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, and Mississippi are among 17 states with less than 1 percent of their commuter population on public transit.

Foot-powered commuters are few
In our data set, bicycling and walking remain the least-popular methods for commuting to work. No state reported more than 5 percent of their commuter population on bikes. Thanks to its bike-friendly city of Portland, the state of Oregon topped the list - but still its bike population is only about 4.63 percent of the total. The majority of states didn’t break 1 percent in this category (Full disclosure, this is how I get to work).

Those who walk to work, meanwhile, are more common than bike-to-work commuters in almost every state, but still represent only a small slice of each state's commuter population. New York had the second-highest number of walking commuters, along with the other top states – Alaska (#1), Vermont (#3) and Montana (#4).

Explore the complete data in our interactive map, and tell us how you get to work. Post a comment or find us on Facebook or Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

Boston T Exec: I Was Surprised Apple Dropped Transit Directions

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Transit info on the current iPhone, via Google  (photo by Kate Hinds)

When Apple V.P. Scott Forstall unveiled the company's new operating system last week, he was breathless with enthusiasm. "Next is Maps," he said. But not included: Transit directions. Bay Area BART trains? Not there. DC's Metro? Not there? Boston's T? Not there.

"I was, first off, kind of surprised," said Joshua Robin, innovation director for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. "For the last couple of years, it's been a huge benefit to our riders to have transit as an option."

iPhones have been relying on Google Maps, which do include transit directions. But now that Apple is working on its own system, it dropped transit. Pro-transit groups started a petition to get Apple to reconsider.

Apple isn't commenting, beyond what Forestall said at the announcement: "Instead of trying to build those ourselves, we are going to integrate and feature and promote your apps for transit right within the Maps app in iOS 6."

So for a while at least, you'll have to download them yourselves.

(From the Marketplace Morning Report)

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Transportation Nation

United Fights to Quash Uppity Southwest in Houston

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

(photo: MichaelB in Houston via flickr/creative commons)

Remember Freddie Laker? Sorry to tell you some of us at Transportation Nation do. At least one of us flew New York to London for something under $100 bucks while in college. But the no-frills airline entrepreneur went belly-up as the big airlines, with deeper pockets, were able to reduce their fares until he gasped for air.

The latest iteration of this struggle is happening in Houston, where Southwest Airlines is trying to get permission to fly international flights to a smaller, closer-in airport -- with United pulling out the big guns to beat back that effort.

Our Gail Delaughter, of KUHFhas the story, on Marketplace.

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Transportation Nation

Will Citibank's $41 Million Bike Share Bet Pay Off?

Monday, May 14, 2012

(Photo Andrea Bernstein)

It's been a long time since the private sector completely took in hand the funding of a public transportation network, and New York's Citibank is certainly rolling the dice by getting behind one as new as New York's bike share.

But there's some anecdotal evidence the bet to associate itself with a hip, new environmentally friendly, healthy form of transport may pay off.

(You can listen to an audio version of this story here.)

On the streets of New York last week, lots of people were already familiar with Citibank's sponsorship --  "I'm very familiar with it," said Jason Banks, who works in advertising. "Isn't it Citibank?" said Erin Goldsmith, who works for a social media company.

Lisa Lipshaw, from London, worked with the company that set up London's Barclay Cycle Hire.  "They did really well out of the sponsorship," she said.

At the kick-off press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg did his part.   At least four or five times, he said "Citibank" when he meant "citibike," before he corrected himself.

"The person who I have the pleasure of introducing next hopes everyone confuses Citibike with Citibank," Bloomberg said, teeing up the remarks of Citibank CEO Vikram Pandit.

Pandit himself was pretty bullish on citibike. "We think this is a very innovative program that makes people's lives easier, and that's what we do, that's what we do as a bank."

Not everyone was thrilled.   Web designer Antonio Ortiz is uncomfortable with big banks' roll in the recent financial collapse "It's like some kind of subversive way of 'Hey we're buying PR, we're being good and we care about the environment and the people of the community.' Like if it was Patagonia, I'm sure I'd feel a different way."

But still.  There are exactly zero New York bikes on the street, and already the name is catching on.

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