Archive for October, 2009

Velib Cost-Effectiveness

Lately, the (English-speaking) press has been whining about vandalism and theft of bicycles in the highly successful Velib bike rental program in Paris:

But this latest French utopia has met a prosaic reality: Many of the specially designed bikes, which cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche.

Wow…blow to the Parisian psyche. Haven’t heard that kind of talk since Hitler marched troops down the Champs Elysee.

This kind of reporting shows again the double standard facing bicycle transport. All modes of transport are subject to theft and vandalism. When cars are stolen, nobody complains about the impact on city-subsidized police budgets. When buses and trains in the public transit fleet are tagged by graffiti artists, nobody complains about cost to repair the damage.

Velib is held to a different standard. That is because it isn’t transport but advertising. The program is run mainly by the multinational advertising firm JCDecaux as profit-making venture. Unfortunately, the global downturn in advertising revenue is hurting its bottom line.

Curiously, JCDecaux is not releasing its cost figures to maintain the program. This has led some to suspect the firm is exaggerating the problem as negotiating ploy. However, we do know how much public financing is required to sustain the program. If the figures published by the press are to be believed, Velib actually shows phenomenal cost-effectiveness.

Some data to consider:

  • Paris City Council has agreed to cover $500 of the cost replacing damaged bikes, or $2 million per year
  • 50,000 – 150,000 trips per day (depending on season)

We can only guess the costs for JCDecaux, but it is probably safe to say the overall subsidy cost of the program is a whopping 25 cents per trip.

Is there any other public transit program which comes even remotely close to this cost? In the US, we subsidize bus trips on the order of $2/trip, and passenger rail trips even more.

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How much would you pay for a little peace and quiet at night? For residents in the western part of Berkeley (CA), the answer might be 10 million dollars. That is how much it will cost to reconfigure four minor at-grade rail crossings to comply with the FRA’s Quiet Zone rules.

Each year, several hundred Darwin Award winners get killed trying to beat the train as they drive around crossing gates. Based on a nonsense “cost-benefit” “study” done in 1994, the FRA implemented a new rule that requires trains to sound their horn at each grade crossing — even if the crossing is equipped with gates and bells.

The new FRA rule is one of the biggest unfunded Federal mandates ever. Those impacted by the rule would have no choice but to pay for expensive intersection reconfiguration, even if those intersections have no history of train-car accidents.

Interestingly, the FRA horn-blowing rule does not bother to consider pedestrian fatalities. In Berkeley, the vast majority of incidents at these grade crossings involve not cars but pedestrians (i.e. trespassers, homeless, drunks, etc). Consultants were asked what impact that accident rate would have on the ability to qualify for quiet-zone status, and the answer was “none at all”. The FRA only cares about automobile collisions because a pedestrian is unlikely to derail a train.

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Not Very SMART, part 2

As reported earlier (Not Very Smart), SMART has decided against purchasing modern off-the-shelf trainsets. Instead, the inexperienced SMART staff will oversee contractors to design a new train from scratch.

A San Francisco firm has been selected to write the specifications and design requirements for the trains, tracks and stations for the Sonoma-Marin commute rail system.

“It is the train and all the systems for the project, that being the signals, communications, dispatch,” said Chris Coursey, spokesman for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. “It is the whole kit and kaboodle for the trains and controls and all that makes it work.”

The firm, LTK Engineering Services, also will support SMART in its dealings with the Federal Railroad Administration and state Public Utilities Commission, which oversee railroads.

The contract is for $2 million and runs through December 2010.

What an amazing coincidence that the firm hired to custom-design these globally-unique trains is the very same firm that wrote the study recommending SMART not use off-the-shelf rolling stock.

Sadly, this is an all too common occurrence in passenger rail projects. Consultants have enormous incentive to choose the alternative that benefits only themselves, rather than the taxpaying public. In this case, LTK recommendation is the design of (in effect) a proprietary system that shuts out all other competition.

The obvious result is going to be ludicrous cost and poor operating performance. In every case where rail transit agencies have designed custom rolling stock, passengers got stuck with unreliable and expensive equipment.

All across Europe, projects quite similar to SMART are being built every year. Those projects go into operation with with minimal time and cost using nothing more than standard off-the-shelf parts — without having to spend 10 years and millions of dollars designing custom rolling stock from scratch.

The “modern” train SMART had proposed to operate until its preferred vendor went bankrupt

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The fearmongers are now going after that very British tradition: biscuits and tea!

An estimated 25 million adults have been injured while eating during a tea or coffee break – with at least 500 landing themselves in hospital, the survey revealed.

The custard cream biscuit was found to be the worse offender to innocent drinkers.

It beat the cookie to top a table of 15 generic types of biscuits whose potential dangers were calculated by The Biscuit Injury Threat Evaluation.

Hidden dangers included flying fragments and being hurt while dunking in scalding tea through to the more strange such as people poking themselves in the eye with a biscuit or fallen off a chair reaching for the tin.

The report quantifies the risk with following equation:

Biscuit Threat Injury Evaluation B.I.T.E. =
6PDKWST (1 – δ S CAP) + 9.9 ε S TB + 40FMX[1-ν 0.1NCH] + 1000 μ L + 400 [ α E NR + β E LR + ρ N CH]

No, the study has not been peer-reviewed, and yes, it is mostly likely a joke.

But will that prevent the politicians from requiring warning labels, or even mandatory helmet law for biscuit-eating minors?

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drivehealthyThe recently concluded Car Allowable Rebate Program (or Cash for Clunkers) has gotten a lot of press lately. It subsidized, up to $4500, purchase of new car, provided it met rather minimal fuel economy standards.

Less well known is California’s variation on this program, called CAP (Consumer Assistance Program). Their website slogan, Drive Healthy for California, is shown over a picture of blobs of oil floating in a blue sky.

Recently, I had opportunity to test out the CAP program when my 13-year-old luxury sedan failed its smog test.

The smog technician identified the problem as a malfunctioning EGR valve. The EGR system recirculates exhaust gas into the engine to burn off pollutants. If the valve malfunctions, the exhaust gas doesn’t get burned off properly.

“You’re in luck,” the tech told me. He explained that because the car was so old, it counted as a “gross polluter”. That means, the State of California, in the midst of its one of the worst budget crises in history, would pay to have my car fixed. Surely, that can’t be, right? I mean, aren’t there income requirements? Nope.

One catch is that California will only pay for repairs done at a shop participating in the CAP program. My regular mechanic, like a lot of other repair shops, was not on the official list.

So I bring the car to a “CAP” mechanic in my neighborhood — a guy I had never used before. Right away, when describing the problem to him, I kept getting this sense that he was real slippery. But what the heck, the State was paying for it — and he was on their officially approved list, so what did I have to lose?

The following day, he tells me it is all fixed and the smog certificate was already filed with the DMV. And how much did I owe? “Nothing,” he says, because the repair bill came within the $500 allowed under CAP.

I examine the invoice and (surprise, surprise) the bill was exactly $500. Gee, who would have guessed? I wonder how many of these State-subsidized repair bills come out to be exactly this amount?

Even more ominous is that the bill indicates he merely cleaned out the valve. Based on what the smog tech had showed me, I was pretty certain that the problem was a malfunctioning valve. Cleaning an EGR valve is definitely not a $500 job.

A few weeks later, the check engine light pops on. I scan the code and, sure enough, it is an EGR malfunction code. I bring the car to my regular mechanic, and told him the story about how this other guy claimed he cleaned out the EGR valve.

My mechanic laughs, “Cleaned out your wallet is more like it,” he says.

Well, the State’s wallet, actually.

So how much would it cost to replace the EGR valve? “Oh, about $500,” he says.

Clearly there are huge loopholes in the CAP program. Anytime the government subsidizes an economic activity, people will figure out how to manipulate it. That is not very difficult when the mechanic getting paid by the State to “fix” a smog failure also is the one to send in the DMV Certificate.

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The Google Streetview below is Brokaw Rd, in San Jose. It is a fairly typical high-speed arterial in San Jose. It crosses four freeways, and the official speed limit is 45mph (with predominant speeds considerably higher). Though it has Class II bike lanes, there is just a trickle of bike traffic.

Silicon Valley has one of the highest automobile mode-shares and worst traffic congestion in the nation. It also has one of the most disfunctional transit agencies. For those looking for alternatives to the car, bicycle ought to be logical choice. The flat terrain and perfect climate ought to provide ideal habitat for utility cycling. But thus far, cycle mode share is negligible.

The Brokaw bike lane shows us why.

Riding alongside high volume and high-speed traffic is nerve shattering. Class II bike lanes are great for slower streets, but the minimal buffer they provide is of little help for freeway-style arterials. Even worse are the many driveways into the strip malls, any one of which is opportunity for driver to commit right-hook across the bike lane. As a result of these hazards, the facility fails to attract any cyclists beyond the hard-core helmet- and lycra-wearing sports enthusiasts.

One key element of cycling planning in Holland is the use of physically-separated bike paths. These vastly increase the comfort level, attracting all levels of bicyclists. A recent project in New York City imitated this concept. The Sands Street approach to the Manhattan bridge is a real innovation: a first-of-its-kind center-median, physically-separated bikeway. Wow.


Imagine something like this running down the center of Brokaw. And other Silicon Valley arterials. It eliminates the right-hook hazard at driveways. The traffic signals are already installed at each intersection. And there is more than enough right-of-way.

The Sands Street project is just the latest in a string of quality bike and ped projects in New York. At the risk of sounding sexist, it is probably no accident that these kinds of projects originated with a woman in charge of NYC Dept. of Transportation (Janette Sadik-Khan).

Transportation engineering (and the cycle advocacy groups) have been historically male-dominated professions. These idiot male engineers tend to design facilities like the one on Brokaw, which are fine for lycra-clad racers, but not so good for more risk-adverse female cyclists.

No surprise, then, that a recent Scientific American article, reports that even in so-called bike-friendly cities, the vast majority of utility bicyclists are male:

In the U.S., men’s cycling trips surpass women’s by at least 2:1. This ratio stands in marked contrast to cycling in European countries, where urban biking is a way of life and draws about as many women as men—sometimes more. In the Netherlands, where 27 percent of all trips are made by bike, 55 percent of all riders are women. In Germany 12 percent of all trips are on bikes, 49 percent of which are made by women. “If you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’—just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female,” says Jan Garrard, a senior lecturer at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and author of several studies on biking and gender differences.

Women are considered an “indicator species” for bike-friendly cities for several reasons… studies across disciplines as disparate as criminology and child ­rearing have shown that women are more averse to risk than men.

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Remember attempts by the FAA to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system? Among engineers and laypeople, failures in that megaproject became a national punchline.


Now history may repeat (in a way) as the technologically-backwards FRA struggles to implement a nationwide train control system. Called PTC (Positive Train Control), it was mandated by Congress following the catastrophic Chatsworth collision.

As usual, FRA intends to re-invent the wheel rather than use existing off-the-shelf solution:

Darrell Maxey, Metrolink’s director of engineering and construction, said the task is much larger than it might appear to consumers, who expect a quick fix. Maxey had no firm estimate on when exactly the new technology will be in place, and neither did Lane Fernandes, manager of North County Transit District’s Coaster commuter rail line, which stretches from Oceanside to San Diego. Both Maxey and Fernandes noted that train-control technology is new and relatively untested. Only a handful of rail lines across the nation have the system installed.

In fact, train-control technology is quite mature. The European ETCS system has been in regular operational use for over 5 years, and rapidly becoming a global standard.

Meanwhile, in La La Land:

The North County Transit District is working with lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to obtain funding for a positive train control system, but like Metrolink, it finds itself waiting for a national standard to be adopted, Fernandes said. Fernandes said that having everyone agree on the system they will use is important, because freight trains travel on local tracks as well as across the country, using rail systems owned by numerous different public agencies and private companies.

“This is not something where you can just reach up on the shelf and pull something down and bolt it to the trains,” Fernandes said.

But of course it is something available on the shelf. Fernandes and the FRA just need to go shopping in the right aisle.

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On billboards, buses, and bus stops, Californians have been inundated with fear-mongering advertisements, like the one shown below. They come from the First-Five which collects 50-cent per pack of cigarettes to fund various child welfare programs.
Children wearing bike helmets are featured prominently in the billboards. Rather than promote cycling as a healthy activity for youngsters, the image gives negative portrayal of bikes. Surely any activity that involves crash helmets can’t be good for kids, right? Of course, the statistics say otherwise. Helmets are now known to be completely worthless as crash protection, and their widespread promotion are attributed with decline in popularity of cycling.

Compare California’s public service advertisement with those found in Holland — where bicycling is heavily promoted as fun, healthful activity. No helmets are ever seen on posters or TV advertisements. Indeed, Dutch planners actively discourage the promotion of bike helmets as a safety measure.

By far, the greatest risk to kids isn’t drowning, walking to school, or riding bikes (as implied by the posters), but childhood obesity. Traffic engineering and suburban development have shrunk the environment available to kids. As a result, incidence of childhood diabetes and heart disease have exploded in the US largely due to kids’ sedentary behavior — and fears parents have about allowing their kids out of the house to ride bikes.

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Robert Moses Resurrected

Who would have thought that 1950’s-style highway planning would be back — only this time in the form of 224 mph high-speed trains? Draw two points on a map, a line in between, and never mind what neighborhoods are in the way of progress:

State officials looking to shoot 220-mph bullet trains through densely populated neighborhoods in San Jose — with the least resistance from residents — are shopping four alternatives to the original route along existing Caltrain tracks.

And here is the map of the alignments (click to enlarge).


Risks of Tunneling
The proposed alignments would run underground. In any high-speed rail project, digging tunnels underneath urban neighborhoods is something to be avoided if at all possible. Not only is it expensive and disruptive, it is also supremely risky. For example: one of the worst civil engineering disasters in the UK was the collapse of the Heathrow Express tunnel. The collapse caused severe damage to buildings at the world’s busiest airport. And it was dumb luck that one of the world’s busiest subway lines wasn’t knocked out too. Similar types of disasters have happened in Cairo and Los Angeles.

Don’t Dig If You Don’t Have To
When high-speed rail technology was developed some 4 decades ago, the critical requirement was compatibility with existing steel-wheel rail infrastructure. That way, planners avoid complications of building new tunnels and ROW into urban centers.

Ironically, San Jose Diridon station has 3 railroad ROW’s running north through Fremont, and another running south. The one running South is, we now know, off limits because of UP freight requirements. But looking north, the VTA owns the ROW running north to Fremont and all the way to Niles (for route through Altamont). Moreover, the other two ROW’s are also entirely feasible, as is the CHSRA preferred alignment on I880 for their (purely theoretical) Oakland spur.

Of course, none of these cost-effective solutions will work if your main objective is building new rail line out into open space and wilderness for the benefit of real estate speculators who bought up ranchland way out past Gilroy…

Environmental Impacts of Tunnels
Lately, the idea of buildings tunnels along the Peninsula for high-speed rail has been seen as bringing certain environmental benefits. Certainly for neighbors living along the line, a tunnel does not have the visual impacts that a surface or aerial line would have. But in other areas, one should not automatically assume tunnels are environmentally benign. While tunnels mitigate noise, they may actually amplify vibration. There are also hydrology challenges to consider. The San Jose downtown area sits in the middle of a major watershed that is already severely degraded.


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Dear San Jose:
When critics lampoon your plans for Diridon Station as a giant money pit, it was meant as a joke — not a design requirement.

The alternative routes include several ideas submitted by the San Jose transportation department, including an aerial or underground line that would thread the Highway 87 and Interstate 280 interchange and end at a new train station between HP Pavilion and the current Diridon station. The new station could be built above ground or underground, but an underground station would probably be constructed under the proposed BART station — where buses now stop in the Diridon parking lot. An underground high-speed rail station there would be about 10 stories deep.

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