HOT Lanes

No. Not anything about the temperature, spicyness or physical attractiveness. High Occupancy Toll Lanes are a fairly recent phenomenon becoming increasingly widespread throughout the USA. A recent Atlantic Cities article covers the introduction of a pretty large scheme, implemented by way of a public private partnership (PPP) in Washington DC:

The expanded roadway – two lanes in each direction, from the I-95 interchange to Tysons Corner – will be made of High-Occupancy Tolls, or HOT lanes. Carpools of three or more, buses and motorcycles (but not hybrids) can drive them for free. Anyone else who wants in will have to pony up according to a dynamic pricing scheme, and there’s no limit to what that could cost.

The $2 billion system was built in a public-private partnership between the state and Fluor Transurban, an engineering and construction conglomerate. Virginia put up about $400 million. The private firms paid for the rest (with the help of a hefty federal loan) in exchange for the right to collect the toll fees for the next 75 years.

Fluor Transurban is guaranteeing a minimum speed on the HOT lanes of 45 miles an hour. That means the toll price will vary according to demand to maintain the steady flow of traffic. The companies estimate that the average ride will cost between $3 and $6 (tolls will be in effect at all hours of the day, not just during rush hour). But there’s no ceiling to what the system may charge drivers to achieve that goal, if it turns out everyone heading to Tysons Corner is willing to pay a ton of money to get there.

These lanes are an interesting convergence of trying to both increase car pooling (the high occupancy bit) as well as being some form of congestion pricing (the toll bit). Proponents of the schemes cite the lanes as not only providing a congestion free option for those using the lane, but also reducing congestion in the general traffic lanes (presumably due to the car pooling). But the scheme comes with its challenges:

If this infrastructure is now managed by private companies, will their interests always align with the public good? Fluor Transurban, for instance, stands to lose money with every carpool that enters the lanes for free. And isn’t there something ethically dubious about enabling drivers who’ve got the money to pay for faster commutes, while low-income commuters continue to pay for transportation with their time?

These toll lanes will offer the equivalent of driving in first class. But some public money did go into providing that premium experience, and the lanes will be patrolled by publicly funded state police.

For transportation engineers, the project poses just as many logistical questions as philosophical ones. Will people really use this system the way Fluor Transurban expects them to? How much will they be willing to pay? And how long will it take drivers to catch on to the new infrastructure? The technology itself is so complex the Washington Post even published a user’s guide for its readers (no, the price of the toll won’t change on you while you’re driving; yes, you will be caught – and pursued by collectors – if you try to beat the system).

I think I’d feel reasonably comfortable with HOT lanes being implemented in Auckland as long as they were done so in a relatively inexpensive way by converting an existing lane – rather than spending megabucks to add additional lanes. Though there’s still something a bit queasy around forcing lower income commuters to pay for transportation with their time. The fact that everyone gets stuck in congestion, no matter how rich or poor they are, has always seemed something of a leveller. But perhaps I’m being too ideological there?

What are your thoughts? Could something like this work in Auckland? Would it reduce congestion? Is reducing congestion really that important? So many interesting questions.

Paying a premium for walkability

Another really interesting article from The Atlantic Cities, this time looking at the price premium people are increasingly willing to pay to locate in a walkable neighbourhood:

Instinct probably tells you that you’ll pay a lot more to live in a downtown apartment, above a grocery store, next to a bar strip and within walking distance of your work place than you will to settle into a comparable home in a bedroom community outside of the city. As this model of compact urban living grows more popular – and every new housing projection reaffirms that it is – walkable places are also growing more expensive.

Just how much more expensive, though, may shock you. New research from the Brookings Institution has created a five-tiered scale of walkability for metropolitan neighborhoods, from completely non-walkable places (exurban residential communities where everyone gets around by car) to mixed-use, dense and amenity-rich neighborhoods where you may not need a car at all (think, in the Washington, D.C., region, Dupont Circle and Georgetown).

Brookings researchers Christopher Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo wanted to put hard numbers to the difference between these places. Looking at the Washington, D.C., region, they’ve calculated that moving from a Level 1 to a Level 2 walkable neighborhood (from a non-walkable place to a slightly less non-walkable one), you will wind up paying $301.76 a month more in rent for a similar home. If you’re really moving up in the world – from, say, that car-dependent exurb to a Georgetown flat – that means the premium to live in a walkable urban community may run you as much as $1,200 a month.

I think we’re seeing similar trends in Auckland, with recent house price statistics once again showing the strongest gains (prices compared to the previous November 2007 peak) in inner isthmus areas, whereas house prices have been static or even falling in the outer suburbs and rural towns.

Leading the Auckland pack are Kingsland (up 19 per cent to the end of March), Grey Lynn (up 17.9 per cent) and Mt Eden (up 16.1 per cent).

Then, all above 10 per cent, come Western Springs, Epsom, Westmere, Meadowbank, Pt Chevalier, Sandringham, Lynfield, Onehunga, Glendowie and Mt Albert.

While outer areas such as Wellsford (down 17.4 per cent), Clendon Park (down 14 per cent) and Manurewa East (down 12.3 per cent) are struggling, prices in the central Auckland suburbs continue to rise.

Back to the USA:

…all of this means that truly walkable urban communities are much more economically vibrant than their drivable suburban neighbors. For each step up this walkablity ladder (which was constructed using the Irvine Minnesota Inventory of urban design dimensions linked to walkability), a store is likely to boost its retail sales by 80 percent, in part thanks to all this sidewalk traffic. The value of your home is likely to go up by $81.54 per square foot. Average rent per square foot of office space, meanwhile, goes up $8.88. (These are all, by the way, correlations, not causal explanations, although Leinberger expects that urban researchers will prove that link eventually.)…

…“It wasn’t that many years ago that walkable urban places had a price penalty associated with them, not a price premium,” Leinberger says. “That’s the structural shift. And when you have a structural shift, it’s important to change your public policy to take it into consideration.”

Those “walkable urban places” he’s talking about did not necessarily have people walking around in them 20 years ago (“Maybe they were running around because they were fearful of being mugged,” Leinberger says). These were the inner-city neighborhoods that middle-class city-dwellers abandoned decades ago. Over time, they deteriorated. They became the cheap places to live. And now that trend is reversing.

Surely the development market in Auckland will catch on to these trends eventually and we’ll see a boom in the provision of inner-city housing (as long as our planning rules provide for it). Surely.

Land Hungry Cars

Seems like the best way to become a regular blogger on this site is to continually bombard the authors with Guest Posts – I’m excited about joining the team!

One of the fundamental geometric advantages of public transport is that it uses less space to shift a certain number of people, than your typical car does. This is most often talked about in terms of corridor space, with such metrics as “this railway line carries the equivalent of ten lanes of traffic” being commonly discussed. This is very true of course, but misses another element of the comparison – which is storage space. While rail and bus depots look fairly large, on a per person carried basis, they are a fraction of the space that gets dedicated to car storage – more commonly known as parking.

While these matters are generally quite logical, being able to quantify the space impact of different transport options is pretty useful when we’re looking at how to integrate our land-use aspirations with the transport projects we prioritise. A useful article by Todd Littman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute helps by doing some of this work.

Newman and Kenworthy (1999, Table 3.9) found that automobile dependent cities average about 7 meters of road length per capita, while less automobile-dependent cities average about 2.5 meters, and parking supply follows a similar pattern. This indicates that automobile-oriented transportation increases facility land requirements 3 to 5 times. Put differently, 66% to 80% of the land devoted to roads and parking facilities in modern cities results from the greater space requirements of automobile transport.

In addition, motor vehicle traffic tends to reduce development density indirectly by increasing the need for sidewalk and building setbacks to avoid traffic noise and dust, so larger boulevards, highways shoulders and front lawns can be considered, in part, a land use cost of motor vehicle transport.

The key point here is to think about land as the obvious scarce resource it is – especially in our cities. If land is being used for wider and wider roads and larger and larger parking lots, that is land which cannot be used for buildings, parks and other – arguably more productive and desirable – uses. Littman goes on to detail this on a per capita basis:

An urban arterial traffic lane can typically accommodate about 1,000 peak-period vehicles. If the average urban automobile commuter drives 10 kilometers each way on a 3-meter wide lane, each requires 60 square meters of additional road space (3m width x 10,000m length x 2 daily commutes ÷ 1,000), plus two to four parking spaces (one at home, one at work, and a share at other destinations) that average 10 square meters for curb parking or 20 square meters for off-street parking. Each additional urban motorist therefore requires 80 to 140 square meters of land for additional road and parking space to avoid increasing traffic and parking congestion.

Compare this with other urban land uses. A typical urban resident uses about 100 square meters of land for a small-lot (400 sq. m.) single-family home with four residents, and less for multi-family housing (townhouses, condominiums and apartments). A typical employee needs about 10 square meters of office space or about 30 square meters for retail. This indicates that an automobile requires more land than a typical urban resident uses for housing, jobs and commercial activities. Automobiles more than double the amount of land required per capita.

That final sentence is critical, that automobiles double the amount of space required on a per capita basis. In other words, providing for cars halves the amount of space available for more productive activities.

What becomes particularly relevant is how this varies across different land uses – which is illustrated in the graph below:


You can really see this domination of commercial areas by roads and parking when you look at recently developed employment centres in suburban USA – with Tysons Corner near Washington DC probably being the most classic example: The ironic thing about having so much land dedicated to roads and parking in commercial centres like this is that this is most probably extremely valuable land. Obviously the zoning is fairly permissive for higher-intensity developments, obviously there’s already a number of businesses located here (the 12th largest employment centre in the USA), and it has good access to both downtown Washington DC and Dulles Airport. Yet so much of this precious land has been eaten up by roads and parking – because the auto-oriented model the places was developed around is just so extremely inefficient when it comes to utilising space.

(By the way, there are some pretty grand plans to completely change Tysons Corner over the next few decades, once the Silver Line Metro System is threaded through it).

What Littman’s work, as well as observations of areas like Tysons Corner, tells us is that if we want to be successful at utilising our urban space more efficiently, then we really need to think very hard about the contribution of transport to this goal, or how transport can undermine this goal if we continue to rely on a primary method of transportation that’s so extremely space inefficient. Furthermore, from an economic perspective if we are to utilise this huge amount of available land that’s often located in logical areas for growth and development, then we need to be providing an attractive alternative to the auto-centric planning paradigm we often get so stuck in. Quite simply, you can’t turn a Manukau or a Botany or a Westgate into the next Newmarket unless a massively lower proportion of people drive – there simply isn’t the space.

The difference rail makes

A few days back I wrote a post about the connections between the “City Centre Master Plan” that Auckland Council is working on, and key transport projects to reduce vehicle numbers in the CBD – most particularly the CBD Rail Tunnel project. The key message in that post was to question whether the rail tunnel business case had properly considered changes to the CBD’s roading network in the future – arising from the Master Plan – that seem likely to reduce general capacity for private vehicles in order to improve the area’s pedestrian friendliness.

This connection between projects like the CBD Rail Tunnel and the quality of the city centre reminded me about a very good book I’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks: The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Having visited Washington DC last year, and ridden the Metro, it was really interesting to learn more about the history of the system – in particular the reasons behind Washington DC choosing not to proceed with a huge freeway building programme in the 1960s and 1970s, but rather choosing to embark on construction of what is now the USA’s second most well-used transit system (after the New York subway of course).

To cut a very long story short, Washington DC chose the metro over the freeway plans in order to save the city. It wasn’t really a practical transport decision, relating to which option could shift more people more quickly and at the cheapest cost (though rail might have won that argument too), but rather that Washington DC residents didn’t want their city to be covered in freeways and carparks – and eventually (through some extremely competent officials) they got their way.

These days the Washington Metro plays an extremely important role in shaping the US Capital. This was explained in excellent detail in the blog “The Transport Politic” a couple of months ago. But the Metro does not serve all of the DC area, and contrasting two employment hubs – one with Metro access and one without it – shows the importance that a rail connection can provide.

Looking first at Ballston, Arlington County, Virginia – this is a centre located right on the “Orange Line” of the Washington Metro system. It is a fairly high density residential and commercial node – a classic ‘transit-oriented development’:There are a few useful things to note in the aerial photograph above. The first is how relatively little of the area is dedicated to surface carparking and the second is now relatively narrow the roads are (you’ll see in a minute what I mean in comparison to). The Transport Politic also noted how the whole development corridor within which Ballston sits has grown significantly over the past 10 years:

…new information from Census 2010 provides empirical confirmation of the significance of land use planning around Metro stations in influencing the growth of Arlington and other places in Northern Virginia. Over the last ten years, Arlington County’s growth has been overwhelmingly concentrated along the Metro corridors, as has growth in Alexandria and some parts of Fairfax County. The densification of these areas is effectively extending the inner-city core of the Washington, D.C. region and substituting sprawling development in the exurbs with dense construction. This represents a change in trends compared to the period between 1990 and 2000.

…the areas of Northern Virginia that saw the greatest percentage growth between 2000 and 2010 were all clustered around Metro stations — in Arlington along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor (Orange Line) and in Crystal City (Yellow and Blue Lines); in Alexandria near Van Dorn Street Station (Blue Line) and Eisenhower Avenue (Yellow Line); and in Fairfax County near Vienna/Fairfax Station (Orange Line). As other areas of close-in Virginia have been fully developed, these station area zones have densified through the coordinated planning decisions of city officials, the availability of rail rapid transit, funds from developers, and a clear interest of a large portion of the population to inhabit the new buildings.

In the case of the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, the Census Blocks within closest proximity of the five Metro stations along the Orange Line absorbed more than 70% of Arlington County’s growth, increasing by 12,816 people compared to Arlington’s expansion by 18,174 people towards a total population of 207,627. These 1.47 square miles arrayed linearly — a small percentage of Arlington’s 26 square miles — now represent more than 17% of the county’s population, compared to about 12% in 2000.

The area to compare Ballston to is known as “Tyson’s Corner“. Take a look at the aerial photograph below and you’ll see pretty quickly how obvious it is that this area has never been served by the Washington Metro system:Unlike Ballston, if you look at the aerial of Tysons Corner above you can barely see anything other than surface level carparks (oh, and the roofs of shopping malls). The level of infrastructure investment in the vast roading network that feeds this area seems immense (and is ongoing as seen on the right-hand side of the picture).

Auckland’s CBD probably doesn’t quite have futures as distinctively different as Ballston and Tysons Corner, but these two examples give us a good indication of the difference that rail has on the form and function of an area. Unless we want to fill our city centre with wider roads, more carparks and so forth we are going to need to find new ways of getting people into and out of the CBD. Buses can do much of that task, but there’s clearly a limit to what they can achieve before they start becoming part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. It is difficult to see how Auckland’s city centre can achieve the goals we want it to have without the CBD Rail Tunnel project.

K Street Transitway

One of the interesting things to come out of the December meeting of the Auckland Council Transport Committee was a new look at a “way forward” on the Dominion Road issue. The minutes of the council meeting recorded:

Of particular note is the specific mention that “median bus lanes” should be considered. I’ve discussed the idea of this before and it seems that the median bus lane idea has also caught on for the Ti Rakau Drive section of AMETI. It would seem that there’s growing recognition of the advantages that arise from chucking the bus lanes in the middle of the road rather than at the sides. Most particularly, it reduces the conflicts between general traffic and buses – particularly for traffic turning in and out of driveway and side-streets.

But Auckland’s not the only place looking at median bus lanes. Washington DC has an extensive median bus lane proposal along one of its main East-West streets: K Street. A video of the proposed K Street Transitway is shown below:




Now obviously there are many differences between this street and Dominion Road: most clearly that K Street is a lot wider and would retain a lot more of its general traffic lanes. But in general, the bus lane concept is similar. Put the lanes in the middle, allow right-turning traffic (left turning in the USA) to cross over the lanes at intersections so people can access properties. Signalise all locations where passengers get on and off the bus and you have a superb quality system. Note in particular the last couple of minutes of the video which show how easy it would be to upgrade the road to light-rail: something that I think Dominion Road will inevitably need at some point in the future.

The Dominion Road Transitway has a fairly nice ring to it too.

Washington DC Metro Photos

For some reason, while I had always planned to post a selection of photos from my visit to Washington DC as part of last month’s holiday, I never quite got around to it. It seems to be a relatively slow day for transport news, so here’s some great rail eye candy from the Washington DC Metro:While I knew about the concrete “vaulted” design of the stations, I wasn’t actually aware that all the underground stations had this design. One might think that the repetitive design would become boring, but actually I felt it was really good – giving a consistent feel to the system as a whole and making it very easy to use and understand – because generally once you worked out the design of one station you could apply that knowledge throughout the system. Very user friendly.The simplicity of the stations’ design is great. One useful thing is that the lights at the side of the platform start flashing about a minute before the train arrives – just so you’re aware to start getting ready to jump on the train.The photo above shows a pretty major interchange station – either Metro Centre or Gallery Place-Chinatown, I can’t quite remember. If you look closely, you’ll see that around halfway along the platforms the space of the station opens up on either side. Underneath this section of the station there’s another line travelling at a 90 degree angle to this one, but all within the same space so once again it’s easy to understand how the whole thing works and easy to navigate your way around the system.

This photo shows a bit more clearly how the interchange works. There’s another line running on the lower level , with plenty of escalators providing access. You can even peer down over the side barriers and see the tracks below.

I must say I find myself wondering whether something like this is what we should be thinking about for a future Midtown railway station – as part of the CBD Rail Tunnel. As I’ve alluded to before, I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to, or want to, link a future North Shore Line in with the CBD Rail Tunnel. My proposition would be to run it at right-angles to the CBD tunnel and provide a cross-CBD connection, as shown in the map below:As you can see, the North Shore to Botany Line intersects with the CBD rail tunnel at Midtown Station. While I don’t think we need to build this second tunnel any time particularly soon – it would pay to think about how we might connect to such a tunnel when designing Midtown station. The station design above is one possible way of how such a station could work.

Back in NZ

After a marathon three flights (New York to LA, LA to Sydney and Sydney to Auckland), we finally made it back to the country this afternoon. I’m obviously pretty exhausted still, and it’ll be a while until I can complete both a full rundown of my thoughts on the holiday – and in particular what lessons I think would be useful for Auckland to learn from the public transport systems of the various cities I visited – as well as a bit of a catch up on what’s happened, and is still happening in the world of transport in Auckland.

For now, here’s a photo of a Washington DC Metro train: The DC Metro is, for some reason, very photogenic.

Back to NYC

So we are now on the final stretch of our holiday, with just a few days to go before returning to NZ. Today we caught an Amtrak train from Washington DC to New York, which is a pretty pleasant 3 hour journey.

Washington DC is a pretty impressive place, with its grand museums, grand National Mall and grand pretty much everything else you could think of. Of course on a transport blog, how could I talk about DC and not mention its Metro. Of a similar vintage to the Montreal Metro, the DC Metro is basically everything that is right about late 20th century public transport projects (I will talk about it’s history and quality a bit more when I am not blogging via an iPad). One thing that really stands out about the DC metro is the architecture,with all the stations underground having a very similar design. It made for some fantastic photos that I will share when back in NZ.

With just a few days left in the holiday I am starting to think about the million posts I have to write when I get back. So I have a few questions/requests for you readers.

1) What bits of my holiday, particularly in terms of transport and urban issues observations, are you interested in hearing more about. Cities I can comment on include New York, Boston, Montreal, Quebec City and Washington DC.

2) What NZ stories have I really missed and should blog about ASAP?

North America Trip

As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, which went on to rather dominate the comments thread, I will be out of the country in North America between September 3rd and September 26th. Leila and I are taking a three week holiday that has been about two years in planning. The plan is as follows:

September 3rd: fly to New York
September 3-7: stay in New York
September 8th: Amtrak train from New York to Boston
September 8-10:stay in Boston
September 11: Flight from Boston to Montreal
September 11-16: staying in Montreal and Quebec City (train between cities)
September 17: fly from Montreal to Washington DC
September 17-20: staying in Washington DC
September 21: Amtrak from Washington DC- New York
September 21-23: staying in New York
September 23-24: flight back to NZ

From a transport nerd perspective I am very much looking forward to seeing the New York Subway and the Washington DC Metro in particular, although the transit systems of Montreal and Boston are certain to also be fascinating.

One issue which has been at the back of my mind in recent times is what will happen to this blog while I am away. It will be during the last weeks of the lead-up to the Super City elections, the time the Onehunga Station (finally) opens and the time that the CBD rail tunnel business case is first released. I’ll probably be able to do a little bit of blogging from internet cafes: although I will probably take that opportunity to share my experiences in the various North American cities I am visiting.

I do have my handy blog assistants, who I am sure will keep things running a bit with what’s going on here in NZ. But I think it’s probably timely to remind people that I am open to people submitting “Guest Posts“, and in particular if there’s a transport issue that you think is worthy of being raised by way of a  guest post then I’m quite happy to schedule quite a few posts to “pop up” while I’m away and keep things reasonably busy.

Oh, and if there are any really useful tips for visiting any of the cities listed above I’d be more than happy to hear about them!