Transformational Transportation

Today’s news chum collection is united by the common theme of transportation: either the article deals with modes of transportation, or places impacted by transportation:

  • The Bus. Think about transportation museums that you know. There are loads of airplane museums. Train museums are quite common. Automobile museums you also see. But bus collections? Rare. About as rare as boardgames about Interstates. Here’s an article about a vintage bus graveyard in Fontana, CA, that may be in trouble. The owner has long wished to found a nonprofit museum dedicated to the history of the American motor coach, and his 122 buses represent a dream long deferred — a dream that could abruptly end, due to the fact that the city of Fontana has annexed the property that he rents to store the buses. he has been given two weeks to move (and the article was published in mid-May, so time may be up already). If he doesn’t get a stay of execution or a new, multi-acre lot (and significant funds to move the buses), many of these historic treasures will be destined for the scrapyard. [Note: I did some searching, but I could not find out what happened on this.]
  • The Elevator. Sometimes the most commonplace objects are the most transformational. Consider the elevator, or as the Brit’s call it, the lift. This humble movable box that goes up and down changed the shape of our cities. It changed the nature of the value of the uppermost rooms of a building, it made increased density possible in our cities, and it transformed how we use space in our cities.
  • The Motel. The impact of the automobile is significant. It transformed the humble inn or downtown hotel into the motel — a building expressly designed for the motoring public where the driver could park next to their room. The world’s first motel was in San Luis Obispo on US 101. Left to decay, the first motel is now going to be rebuilt. All that remains of the Motel Inn is a crumbling façade and an office building. The property on the north end of Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo has sat shuttered and dilapidated since the 1990s. In 1925, the Milestone Mo-Tel, as it was originally called, became the first motel in the world.Now, a team of local developers is working to restore the motel to it’s former glory.
  • The Vanpool. Solo driving can be tiring. Consider the transformational value of the vanpool and ride-sharing on how one gets to work. I know this personally: I vanpool every day. I put less miles on my car, have lower insurance, use less gas, and get reimbursed for my vanpooling costs (so I commute for free). A sweet deal. But I’m not the only one. Here’s a piece from a lawyer who commuted to Century City who decided that ride-sharing was much better. PS: If you live in the north valley, and commute to El Segundo, drop me a note if you might be interested in joining our vanpool.
  • The Mall. One of the greatest impacts of the automobile was in how we shop. No more wandering that quaint collection of stores downtown. We could go to the mall. That indoor collection of store after store surrounded by free parking, anchored by multiple department stores. Well, the department stores are going bankrupt, the small stores in the mall are dying, and everything is being killed off by Amazon. People still go shopping, but for the experience in outdoor shopping villages. As for the mall? Perhaps we can transform it into something better. But perhaps not. We shall see.
  • Signage. Transportation has also transformed how we sign things. We have to design signage to be universally understandable, at a high speed, by many cultures. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t (I have yet to see a well designed “no right turn on red” sign). 99% Invisible presents one such quandry: how would you redesign the “lane ends, merge left” sign? The old version of the sign features two lines running parallel at the bottom with one angling in toward the top. This design can be mirrored to indicate a merge from either the left or the right. It is hard to tell, though, whether the lines represent lanes or their borders — if lanes, then it looks like two routes coming closer together (not merging). The existence of text-only supplements (“LANE ENDS MERGE LEFT”) also suggests a graphic-only approach can be baffling. How would you improve it?



What’s The Incentive?

As you may know, I vanpool to work. I’ve been doing so since the early 1990s; I’m currently the operator of the van. This means that I lease the van from the vanpool company, collect the fares monthly from my passengers, and pay the lease. We get a nice incentive from LA Metro for keeping our van at least 70% full, and my employer takes care of fueling the van for us (although we pay for the fuel and the fuel attendant). Riders who work at my employer get a tax-free credit of what they pay for the vanpool to a maximum $255 a month as an IRS credit. Combine this with lower insurance costs for driving less, and I actually save money by living further away from work and not driving my personal vehicle.

One of the downsides, however, is I periodically have to find new riders (PS: If you commute from the northern San Fernando Valley to El Segundo, (Vride Finder; on the Metro Finder, enter start 91324, end 90245 and we’re van “Tribure/Chimineas Northridge  91325” Van 1645) working 7am to 330pm M-F, 📲 call me or 📧 email me or PM me if you are on FB). So my virtual ears picked up when I read an article today about how to encourage employees to not use their personal vehicles.

The answer: eliminate the subsidy that employers get for providing parking, and make employees pay to park. Keep the subsidies for transit and car/vanpools. Quoting from the article:

Among the more galling subsidies, writes Susan Balding at Greater Greater Washington, are commuter parking benefits. Many employers provide free parking as a perk, and the federal tax code allows car commuters to write off up to $255 a month in parking expenses.

Thanks to a change in the law in 2015, transit riders can write off the same amount, but the impact is overwhelmed by the traffic-inducing effect of the parking benefit. Baldwin says if we’re going to make a dent in congestion in major cities, parking subsidies have got to go:

And this:

Parking benefits, you likely won’t be surprised to hear, also drive up congestion. And beyond that, they leave governments with even less money to repair roads and keep up public transit systems: As of 2014, the parking benefit translated into about $7 billion a year in lost tax revenue (because the money used toward the benefit is not taxed). To put that in perspective, the Federal Transit Administration’s total appropriations in 2016 came to just over $11 billion.

Now taking transit can be time consuming. One article shows that transit, unless you have a convenient route, can take twice as long as driving. But carpooling and vanpooling doesn’t have that problem (well, unless you’re like our van, and we run a surface street route to make it easier for our riders — this adds about 1/2 hr on the valley end). Quoting from that article:

For New York metro residents who take public transportation, a door-to-door commute averages about 51 minutes. That’s much longer than the 29 minutes typically spent by those who drive alone. Similar discrepancies exist around Los Angeles, where despite the region’s traffic woes, drivers arrive at work an average of 22 minutes faster than public transportation riders. In nearly every metro area, driving to work remains far quicker than using a bus or train, taking less than half as long in some places.

So, here’s my question to you: If you had to pay to park at work, with no subsidies, would that encourage you to take transit, carpool, or vanpool?


Good News for Vanpoolers

userpic=vanpoolingBy now, everyone knows that the fiscal cliff has been averted, and a compromise bill passed. What you probably don’t know is everything that was in the bill. It is your usual mix of good and bad, but there is some good news for those of us that commute via shared rides (buspools, vanpools): the commuter tax benefit has been restored. According to LA Metro:

As part of the fiscal cliff legislation adopted by the Senate and House yesterday, a provision was included that will extend (through December 31, 2013) the increase in the monthly exclusion for employer-provided transit and vanpool benefits from $125 to $240.  By increasing the monthly exclusion for transit and vanpool participants, the benefit now matches those provided for employer-provided parking benefits.

Further, according to the American Public Transportation Association:

Under the new “fiscal cliff” legislation passed by Congress this week, the parity between public transit and parking benefits are now up to $240 a month and are retroactive from January 1, 2012. This will expire on December 31, 2013.

This is a significant jump, and drastically reduces commuting costs. I have no idea whether “the ranch” will provide the retroactive side of the benefits; I could see that as an accounting nightmare.

There were also improved benefits for those that used Compressed Natural Gas (CNG): “Also included in the fiscal cliff legislation was a provision to extend, for one year, the CNG tax credit. In addition to being extended through December 31, 2013, the CNG tax credit language included in the final bill provides for the tax credits to be retroactive for 2012.” This is of significant benefit to public transit agencies.


HOV Lanes: A HOT Topic

Look, I made a funny!

Seriously, for the last two days I’ve been participating in a very interesting discussion, courtesy of my good electronic road-colleague, Mr. Roadshow (Gary Richards) at the San Jose Mercury News. Gary did two posts on the efficacy of HOV lanes — one saying how they don’t work on Sunday, and one talking about how they are effective today. In fact, in today’s article, I was even quoted about my experiences commuting to Circle A Ranch.

So, naturally, I’ve been participating in the discussions, but the discussion style doesn’t really allow me to share my experiences well. That’s why there’s LiveJournal. So let me share my thoughts on ridesharing, and then I would like to hear your thoughts.

  • I’ve been ridesharing for a long time. It started when I was living in North Hills and working at SDC in Santa Monica. At that time, I had a carpool with Mark Biggar, Jon Biggar, and Larry Wall (yes, that Larry Wall, of perl fame, which is why I’m perl’s paternal godparent). We regularly alternated drivers (well, we never took Larry’s beat up Honda, “Knox”—it was usually Mark’s Mitsubishi or my Stanza). For all my time at SDC, which was about 3 years, we carpooled. Shortly after I got to Circle A Ranch, I joined up with my present vanpool, and I’ve been on it since then, It will be, sigh, 20 years on the van come next year.
  • So why do I vanpool? First, I’m lucky to work at a company that has regular work hours, and is supportive of a vanpool program. The ranch’s vanpool program is over 30 years old and is one of the largest in the region. We’ve won numerous awards. This means that they are tied into the federal and local tax incentives, mean they reimburse those who rideshare in accordance with IRS Rule 132(f), and they also participate in the Metro Vanpool monthly subsidy program. For me, this means I get reimbursed (I think pre-tax) for my vanpool costs, which (as the van is parked at my house) means my commuting cost is $0. Add to that the reduced use of gas, the reduced milage for insurance, and it is win-win. Plus, most days I get to sleep on the way into work, and I alternate driving back (which permits me to listen to podcasts: today was “Wait Wait”, tomorrow is “LA Theatre Works”, and Wednesday will be “This American Life”). That’s a lot less stress.
  • I believe there is a difference in attitude towards HOV lanes in the Northern and Southern parts of the state. Down here, we have HOV-exclusive lanes. This means they are for 2+ passengers at all hours, and there are specific entry and exit points (for those in the Bay Area, this is like the new 680 lanes). They are always created by adding a lane to the freeway, and they are only on freeways. In the Bay Area, mixed-use lanes are converted to HOV lanes during peak hours, meaning that lanes are taken away (which creates additional resentment). People can cut in and cut out at any time.
  • Do I think HOV lanes work? I think the results are mixed. Some studies show they increase ridership, and some studies show they don’t. Do I think they work? Well, they help me get home faster. Do I think we should build more? A strong yes, and here’s why. Right of way to add lanes is getting more and more expensive, especially around already constructed freeways. Planning and environmental costs are going up. History has shown that when a mixed-flow lane is added, the freeway speeds up… for a while, but then traffic moves off of surface streets to the freeway. Plus, the growth of population means there are going to be more vehicles. The only way to increase capacity for existing roads is to increase the density of the vehicles on the road. It will be a while until that’s all computer controls so we can reducing spacing and increase flow, so the only real solution is to increase the number of people per vehicle.

I’d like your thoughts, assuming LJ continues to work. Do you think HOV lanes are a good idea or a bad idea? Do you like ridesharing? Please read Gary’s Sunday Column and his Monday Column, and chime in with your thoughts.


Comprehensive Rail Networks for Los Angeles

An entry in the LA Times Bottleneck Blog has an interesting pointer to a website called Get LA Moving (a project of The Transit Coalition). This website proposed a comprehensive rail network for Los Angeles that includes, among other things:

  • The Bronze Line. 53 Miles of Track (47.3 Miles of New Track). The line begins near the Van Nuys Blvd/Foothill Freeway (I-210) intersection and continues south down Van Nuys to Ventura. East down Ventura to Sepulveda. It then continues down the Sepulveda Pass from Sepulveda/Ventura to the UCLA station at Strathmore/Westwood, with a small diversion to the Getty Center tram station. South down Westwood to Pico; and southwest down Pico to the eastern shoulder of the 405 Freeway. Southeasterly down the eastern shoulder of the 405 freeway to Culver; continuing southeasterly down Sepulveda to El Segundo; and south down the western shoulder of Sepulveda from El Segundo to Rosecrans at-grade. East down Rosecrans to the existing Green line tracks; and southeast down the Green Line ROW to Marine/Redondo Beach Ave. Southeast down the Harbor Subdivision ROW to the western shoulder of the 405 Fwy, continuing southeast to Hawthorne Blvd. South down Hawthorne Blvd. to the Harbor Subdivision ROW at 190th. Southeast down the Harbor Subdivision tracks at-grade to Crenshaw; continuing down the Harbor Subdivision to Normandie. South down Normandie to Pacific Coast Highway. East down PCH, continuing after the Los Alamitos Circle down Atherton to Bellflower, veering southeast to the Cal State Long Beach/Long Beach Veterans Hospital terminus at 7th Street/Campus Drive.
  • The Lime Line. 24.2 Miles of Track (19.7 Miles of New Track). The line would extend west from the Glendale Galleria station down Broadway sharing tracks with the Gold line to the Valley Subdivision/Metrolink ROW, which rusn parallel to San Fernando Road. Northwest up the ROW at-grade to the Coast Subdivision/Metrolink ROW; continuing at-grade down the ROW to Sherman Way. West down Sherman Way to Reseda; and north up Reseda Blvd to Nordhoff. West down Norhoff to the Coast Subdivision/Metrolink ROW; and north up the ROW at-grade to the Chatsworth Metrolink station terminus.
  • The Gold Line. 37.2 Miles of Track (33.5 Miles of New Track). The line would extend west from the Old Town Pasadena station down Walnut to the 134 freeway; continuing west to Colorado Blvd. West down Colorado Blvd to Broadway; continuing west down Broadway to the Valley Subdivision/Metrolink ROW parallel to San Fernando Road. Northwest up the ROW at-grade to Olive Street; and southwest down Olive to North Pass Ave. Southwest under Universal Studios to Ventura/Lankershim. West down Ventura to Wilbur; and north up Wilbur to the southern shoulder of the Ventura (101) Freeway to Canoga Ave. North up Canoga Ave to the Burbank Branch/San Fernando Valley Busway ROW near Vanowen to Plummer; continuing north up the Coast Subdivision ROW at-grade to the Chatsworth Metrolink station terminus.

This would make it easy to get to work. Bike to Northridge Fashion Center, and thenk take the Lime Line to the Bronze Line to the Green Line.

I do think the proposal has some problems. It abandons (or makes into a trolley) the current portion of the green line between Imperial/Aviation to Rosecrans. I’d keep that as an alternate terminus for the Green Line — it is important because of the rail maintenance yards. In fact, the one thing many of these fancy plans do is forget the maintenance and storage yards, especially for lines that have different types of equipment or power. That is a significant concern, especially for lines that move from at-grade to elevated to below-grade. For some, you prefer overhead catenary, and for others, third-rail. I do think the proposal is better in its valley coverage than the proposal developed by Numan Parada, although Numan’s map does a better job for the Green Line. It certainly is an improvement over the current approach.

Will we ever see this? Who knows. But the maps are pretty and fun to look at, and one can always dream 🙂


Well, that was exciting…

This morning, as our vanpool was toodling to work, going down Hayvenhurst between Chatsworth and Devonshire… we suddenly had a car going like a bat out of hell run the red light perpendicular to us (i.e., crossing right in front of us just as we were about to enter the intersection). Our driver slammed on the brakes so we wouldn’t get hit. The car that ran the light was immediately followed about about 10-14 LAPD cars, all going superfast, some with lights, only one with sirens (ETA: turned on as that police car hit the intersection).

We were lucky. Had we been just a little faster through the interchange there would have been fatalities. I can’t find any details about this chase on the news yet. Quite an exciting way to start the morning.


Playing on the Freeway

Recently, I’ve been playing on the freeway. No, I’m not referring to my commute home. I’m referring to the LA Times Bottleneck Blog (syndicated on LJ as bottleneckblog). There seem to be a bunch of folks on this blog that only see black and white: if it isn’t a fully built out underground rail system for Los Angeles, it is no good. Busway… no good. HOV lanes… no good. Light rail… no good. Never mind the impact or cost of the construction. Never mind the impracticalities of it. Equally, there are folks who think we should just turn everything into shimmering concrete: damn the houses or other impacts.

Of course me, ever the pragmatist and the historian, can’t stop from jumping in. So I have. What discussions, you might ask?

Wilshire subway, bus fare hike: No!
Longer buses on Orange Line
405 logjam
Freeway revolt in the Inland Empire
Carpool “snitch line”: Is it needed?
405 opposition moves to Valley
Beverly Hills Freeway: Revisionist history
Freeway conspiracy theory
405 widening: Here come the lawyers!

Yup. That’s me. Playin’ on the freeway.


Don’t Drive To Work, and You May Be Eligible for Extra Cash

The Los Angeles Times is reporting today on a little-known state law, called the Parking Cash-Out Law, that requires certain employers who provide subsidized parking for their employees to offer a cash allowance in lieu of a parking space. The intent of the law is to reduce vehicle commute trips and emissions by offering employees the option of “cashing out” their subsidized parking space and taking transit, biking, walking or carpooling to work. The state has a good page with lots of information.

Under the Parking Cash-Out program, employers must pay a stipend equal to the cost of a parking space to workers who do not drive to the office. The law covers public and private employers that have at least 50 employees and that offer free parking in a leased lot. However, a lot of employers don’t know they are required by law to do this. Further, State officials have no idea how many businesses are required to offer the cash inducements, much less how many of them actually do. Wednesday, Los Angeles City Council’s Transportation Committee will consider how to go about implementing and enforcing the law. Currently, only Santa Monica enforces the law, where provisions of the statute were incorporated into a traffic management ordinance. In 2002, it was estimated that just 3% — or an estimated 290,000 of the state’s 11 million employer-paid parking spaces — are subject to the law. About 84% of the free parking spaces are exempt because they are employer-owned.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments estimates that 95% of the people who drive to work park there for free. However, 17% of all drivers offered cash in exchange for their free parking space will give up their vehicles.

Some employers offer free bus passes and other incentives to reduce car emissions under regional air quality guidelines. Those entities can satisfy smog-reduction requirements and the state law by incorporating parking cash-out subsidies. For example, where I work, we get up to $105 a month, tax-free, in our paychecks if we are on a vanpool: this reduces my cost of commuting to between $20-$40/month — a price that can’t be beat!

Currently, the law’s many exemptions make enforcement difficult. For now, it is “complaint driven”. Possible violations may be reported by calling (800) 952-5588 or the local air district. The statute includes a $500 fine per vehicle for noncompliance, but no one has been fined.