Intelligent Transit and Smarter Travelers

On Real-Time Information and Flexible Mass Transportation

In February’s blog, I spoke to my complicated relationship with the car. In March’s post, I provided a slightly queasy anecdote about the experience of commuting on public transit. Today, I muse on the intersection of these modes – the privately owned, flexible auto services popping up like weeds in major cities worldwide. And just as weeds expose (and, arguably, create) cracks in the sidewalk, Uber and related services  - called “Transportation Network Companies”, or TNCs, by those kids hip with the transportation planning lingo – are poking holes in established public transportation systems.

Eric Jaffe brings attention to the steadily rising antagonism between transit agencies and TNCs in a recent article from CityLab – framing this discussion around Uber’s April fool’s prank, when the company touted launching an on-demand train service called “UberT”. While I certainly thought the hoax was silly, I doubt many public transportation agency folks are laughing. Although these agencies are seemingly taking a sort of “wait-and-see” approach with regard to speaking out on TNCs, there is no question these operations are beginning to siphon away occasional (if not, increasingly, regular) transit riders. Providing on-demand, flexible, comfortable service – I understand the appeal of the TNC. I buy in.

That said, I am, fundamentally, a champion of public transportation. I don’t believe private control is appropriate where it might compromise the mobility of certain travelers (those of low-income, for instance).

I am of the conviction that transportation is a right.

Accordingly, I support private enterprises seeking to assist transit agencies in reclaiming urban transportation dominance. I believe that modeling public transportation systems such that they might provide smarter, more flexible and accessible services, has been, historically, an initiative ignored amidst ever-pressing operations and maintenance burdens. Given the pressures of TNCs and the like, this is no longer acceptable. Ventures like TransLoc, which works with transit agencies to provide real-time transportation service and rider information, hold great potential for informing the transition to “smarter” transit. Other transportation information services – including TransitScreen and RideScout, to name a few – are simultaneously allowing travelers to make more informed decisions about the way they move. From where I see it, aligning intelligent transit with smarter travelers is the best way to maximize the efficiency, effectiveness, and equity of today’s mass transportation systems.

So I implore public transportation agencies to hear the call of modern riders - those of us with dynamic schedules, and places to go beyond fixed routes. We don’t want to give up on you, but hey, everyone’s a little fickle. If there’s a more flexible option many of us will take it. Thus, I urge public entities to take advantage of real-time information, and tailor their services accordingly. It’s time to learn up!

Here’s to a smarter public transportation future.


Bridging the Funding Gap

Addressing America's Transportation Infrastructure Crisis

To begin, a haiku:

Big infrastructure -
transportation’s legacy.
Show me the money.

There is nothing sexier in transportation than big infrastructure. Big bridges. Long tunnels. Endless asphalt. But, as CityLab pointed out in an article published late last month, pouring concrete isn’t cheap. Particularly when the well is swiftly drying up. The desiccation of the United States Highway Trust Fund, supported by the federal fuel tax, is a result of several phenomena (inflation, anti-tax sentiment, fuel economy improvements) that, when combined, might spell the end not only of the Highway Era, but of the Megaproject Era. An unsettling harbinger of this fate lies in our nation’s infrastructure crisis. A lack of funding for continued operation and maintenance of America’s extant transportation systems and structures paints a bleak picture for the future of large – as in, multi-billion dollars large – transportation infrastructure development.

This considered, I impel not only the future generation of transportation planners, policymakers, and engineers to reconsider transportation financing mechanisms, but also which modes are most deserving of accommodation. While bridges, tunnels, and asphalt have reigned for much of the last century, it might be time to think about where investments might reap the most sustainable rewards – whether targeted towards the alternative fuel or advanced technology auto, transit, or otherwise.

If this paradigm shift does, indeed, materialize, it will inevitably follow the money - as most things do. Accordingly, those politicians reaching for transportation dollars where they can get it will most certainly have the upper hand from a power perspective. And, if we’ve learned anything from Uncle Ben (the Spiderman one, not the rice one), with great power comes great responsibility…and great transportation monuments. 

Apparently, this is not an opportunity lost on mayors, and other state and local officials taking a stand on reforming transportation spending in the United States. From the CityLab article mentioned prior, these upcoming “Infrastructure Mavens” are launching “the largest coordinated campaign by mayors in some time, pushing Congress to reauthorize the surface-transportation bill and to increase funding for local and state infrastructure projects”. Dissatisfied with, typically, Republican governors’ performance in accumulating and transferring transportation dollars from the federal to the state level for infrastructure projects, this coalition of, primarily, Democratic mayors is seeking to take control of solving our nation’s infrastructure crisis. 

Whether this represents a power trip or a legitimate commitment to addressing one of the great transportation failures of the twenty-first century, I, for one, am thrilled by this announcement. I am hearted by any initiative, in fact, that promises to repair the Bay Area’s sub-par bridge conditions, among other projects. [Seriously, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission reports that 41% of bridge and overpass deck area in San Francisco is structurally deficient. The ground here is shaky enough already; thinking further about the risks associated with this statistic is beyond alarming.]

I am cautious with this optimism, however. For, as CityLab goes on to describe, the cracks extending beyond our transportation infrastructure to our nation’s transportation financing systems are not new. They have been growing for some time now, and usually garner political attention and professed support from big business around the time of the State of the Union address each year (as was done in 2015). But, alas, little action has yet to come from this cries. Transportation spending, which one might intuitively perceive to be a bipartisan issue particularly where it manifests in ubiquitous infrastructure failure, is nonetheless contentious considering the money for rectifying this problem has to come from somewhere. The question is, where? 

To end, in David Graham’s words:

“Many politicians seem to be genuinely eager to solve these problems but unable to find a way to do so. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but if these mayors want to head someplace else, they're going to need to find the funding for asphalt.

Here’s to supporting steps – no matter how small or wobbly – towards a sustainable transportation funding and financing future.


Crossing the Finish Line

Solving the "Last Mile" Transportation Problem

Let me start this post by saying: this one’s for my fellow transit riders – past, present, and future. Those of us who routinely pack ourselves into small metal containers with a swimming-pool’s-worth of strangers, and simply try to focus on breathing as a distraction from watching the flecks of dandruff slowly accumulate on our black blazer while the tall man we share a handhold with exhaustively (and exhaustedly) rubs the back of his neck beside us. Those of us who, upon feeling the terror and subsequent relief of grasping said container has just traveled for nearly 4 miles, 135 feet underwater and emerged successfully on the other side, then exit our train (bus/trolley/etc.) to find that, alas, we’re not home yet. There’s still that last mile or so ahead that we’ll need to trudge, bus, or bike, until, finally, we’ve reached the finish line.

The tone of my anecdote is not meant, by any means, to be interpreted as an argument against taking public transportation as an alternative to using a private car. There’s something special about being part of a shared human experience that does not (or, should not) discriminate by gender, age, race, ethnicity, income, or otherwise. Also, I find my commutes on BART to be, typically, relaxing. I can’t read my book in the car. I can’t share a subtle grin with a fellow, weary traveler as we squeeze closer and closer together at the direction of a baggy-pants-wearing teenager ensuring an elderly woman gets a comfortable seat. I can’t sing to myself as I enjoy a leisurely walk home from the station while watching the sunset over the Bay. I don’t have to worry about gas money, when traffic will clear, or if my insurance will cover that “love tap” from my co-worker’s bumper.

This said, I recognize not everyone is able, willing, or, at least, as eager as I to make the necessary sacrifices to avoid automobile ownership or car travel. Moving beyond the perceived comfort of transit, making it to and from the station can be a pain. Knowing your journey has yet to end, or even begin, after a tired morning or long day of work is absolutely demoralizing. It’s also totally valid for some to say they simply don’t have the time to extend their commute – if only by the time spent walking to and from the bus station.  In fact, called transit’s “peskiest problem” in an article from The Atlantic’s CityLab, conquering that “last mile” from the transit station to work or home is a major barrier to moving people out of cars and into cleaner, high-capacity, public transportation modes.

That’s why we at SFCCC will be hosting a “first/last mile” technology ride/glide/skate event early this summer (details to come: stay updated by checking our news feed, events page, and twitter). To feature technologies like the NorCal Glide – advertised as “a small, affordable personal transporter” and resembling a high-tech version of an old-school lawn mower – this interactive exhibition will provide participants with options for that extra boost to take transit and make it all the way. Personally, I’m most excited for a test cruise on one of Boosted’s electric longboards (we’re getting closer and closer to the hoverboard – just sayin’!). Attendees more inclined – pun intended – towards balance-responsive MonoRovers (single-wheel modes are no longer reserved for juggling clowns), or electric bikes/scooters will not be disappointed.

Overall, it should be a lot of fun. Let’s be honest, if I had a portable mini-Segway-esque device to scoot me home from the BART station every once in a while (on those tough shoe days, you know?) it wouldn’t be so bad. Please do consider joining us for the event, and, regardless, think about how you might overcome the barriers that prevent you from taking transit. After all, doing so is the only way you, and all of us, can reap the benefits.

So in committing to make (and stick with) clean transportation choices, I implore you to brush the dandruff off, step onto your electric skateboard, and travel the last mile with a smile. Here’s to making responsible travel mode choices, moving in style, and crossing the finish line!



The Future of the Great American Road Trip

On Making the Long Haul in Alternative Fuel and Advanced Technology Vehicles

CityLab recently released a selection of articles from its nine-month, 2014 series on “The Future of Transportation” in an e-book available for free download online. An entertaining, interesting, and, at times, jarring evaluation of national travel patterns and transportation policy present and future, we at the SFCCC absolutely recommend a read.

My favorite piece included is titled “What Running Out of Power in a Tesla on the Side of a Highway Taught Me About the Road Trip of Tomorrow”. This narrative by author Nate Berg is set in the context of a 209-mile evening haul – from Barstow, California to Kingman, Arizona – in a rented Tesla Model S.

A recent college graduate in my early 20s and Tucson, AZ native, I grew up in a 3-person family with 4 cars, and am all too familiar with the great American road trip. In fact, as a kid Kingman was a frequent travel stop on trips to visit family in Las Vegas. As a legal adult it served the same purpose for Vegas trips of a…slightly different nature. But as an aspiring clean transportation professional, my relationship with driving is complicated. I cannot deny the pleasant nostalgia I derive from thinking back on my sophomore-year spring break trip, driving from Tucson to San Francisco, down the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara and San Diego before returning to Arizona. Recalling the feeling of cool mist on my face passing through Big Sur, flanked by towering redwoods to my left and violently beautiful Pacific waves to my right, I feel no compunction about saying some of the greatest moments of my life thus far have been spent inside a vehicle. A gas-guzzling, tailpipe-puffing car.


In Berg’s retelling of this journey, he speaks first to the prospect of taking all-battery electric vehicles like the Model S on hundred-mile-plus trips. Tesla’s network of “Superchargers” – DC battery-charging stations that can bring a Model S to full charge in slightly over an hour – should, in theory, allow Tesla drivers to charge up over lunch, and make it up to 250 miles before stopping at the next charge point for the night. This distance certainly qualifies as a road-trip-status drag, presenting opportunity for EV drivers to achieve comparable mobility to traditional drivers in long-range travel.

As you may have discerned from the title, Berg doesn’t make it from Barstow to Kingman within his estimated 38-mile buffer. Spoiler alert: he misses the next Supercharger station by a mere 3 miles, and proceeds to endure a disheartening, epic tow effort that slogs through the night and through much of the next morning.

The article suggests three main constraints limit the all-electric-vehicle market:

  1. The limits of battery capacity
  2. The time it takes to charge the battery
  3. The availability of charging stations

With ever-advancing battery technology, issues (1) and (2) should be given minimal consideration compared to charging station accessibility. For although this is essentially an infrastructure concern, it exerts a strong influence on behavioral barriers associated with buying EVs – namely “range anxiety”. As we spoke to in January, potential adopters of alt fuel and electric vehicles, understandably, need to know they can make it where they need to go.

Despite his experience, Berg presents a compelling case for Tesla’s efforts to ease range anxiety for EV drivers hoping to make inter-city trips – citing figures that the company’s Supercharger network should be able to reach 98 percent of the U.S. population by the end of 2015. To date, it is estimated covers a range accessible to approximately 80 percent. 

Michael Nichols, a UC Davis researcher, asserts overcoming this anxiety is key to kick-starting the EV market. While Tesla seems to be taking this approach to heart in expanding their Supercharger network, others say this infrastructure investment might not be necessary if the market continues heading in the ‘hybrid’ direction. This said, ‘hybrid’ does not necessary mean the gas/battery mix we’re used to. It might be some combination of oil, natural gas, batteries, and hydrogen fuel cells, among other emerging fuel technologies on the horizon, says Timothy Lipman of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. These varieties might allow drivers to achieve greater range on batteries via alternative fuel boosts that supply the vehicle with more power when the battery runs out.

Ultimately Berg is able to make the return trip from Kingman to Barstow, and then back to Los Angeles problem free. And in a surprising twist, he’s sad to return the vehicle following his first electric-car road trip, however tumultuous it was. He says, “It felt a little like coming back to the present after a brief visit to the near future”.

The future Berg speaks to is one I want to be a part of. I’m not ready to give up the road trip, nor do I intend to spurn my commitments to reducing the collective costs of vehicle travel. So we here at the SFCCC encourage advancement and innovation in expanding EV charging networks and developing new advanced vehicle technologies that combine the best of what alt fuel research, present and forthcoming, has to offer.

Here’s to moving forward, and not letting one breakdown outside of Kingman stand in our way.


New Year, New Fuels

Getting to Know the Alternative Fuels Data Center

It’s 2015. Back to the Future II promised me hoverboards, self-tying shoelaces, and flying cars. If you ask me, a lack of hoverboards is this list’s greatest disappointment (if you can levitate up to 574 people on a high-speed train, why is it so difficult to levitate one young woman on a skateboard-sized deck?). Others in transportation might fixate more on the futuristic automobile - a literal Thunderbird. While it sounds like an ideal solution to congestion, there is little evidence to support that a flying car would increase one’s fuel efficiency, or decrease our nation’s petroleum dependence (in fact, I would posit it would take quite a lot of fuel to power a flying car’s jet engine). 

As our new year’s resolutions at San Francisco Clean Cities thematically identify with the latter aim, I would like to take the opportunity to familiarize those reading with a resource that most certainly can make a difference in supporting America’s clean transportation future: the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC). Looking to save some money on gas (you may interpret this either as the cost of gasoline or the cost of auto emissions)? The AFDC is the site for you. Providing information, data, and tools to help decision makers navigate their way towards cleaner transportation choices, the AFDC is a one-stop-shop for knowledge on alt fuels technology, policy, and news.

Some of our favorite features of the AFDC include:

1.     The newly added “Alternative Fuel IQ” Test for those of us who don’t know where to start. Give it a go yourself! Don’t fret a poor score; there is plenty of information stored throughout the AFDC to boost those alternative fuels brain cells until they rise off the charts.

2.     The Alternative Fueling Station Locator for those of us who have already ventured, or are considering venturing into the land of alt fuel vehicles and are a little anxious about that ever-pressing question: “Can we make it?”. Plan trips in your brand new, fun sized Prius c without worrying about where to charge up!

3.     The Laws & Incentives Database for those who want a little more bang for our buck (as if the internal satisfaction of keeping harmful emissions out of the environment and boosting our nation’s energy independence is not enough). Search by state to review incentives, laws, and regulations related to alt fuels and advanced fuel vehicle technology wherever you are now, or wherever you’re going (it is a new year after all – adventure calls!).

As these features merely skim the surface of what the AFDC has to offer, we at the SFCCC encourage you to take a closer look in 2015. Let us know what you find helpful, and please do reach out with any additional questions, compliments, concerns, or simply to share your new year’s transportation resolutions. Here’s to a cleaner fuel future (and to never losing hope for hoverboards)!