God help us all.

DERP
DERP

Last night was the Better Mobility 2015 Mayoral Forum, hosted by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.  All seven candidates for mayor (six Democrats, one Republican), save for State Sen. Anthony Williams, who was represented by his campaign’s policy director, spent the evening pledging fealty to Vision Zero in particular, and to the idea that Cars Don’t Rule Philadelphia in general.  Which is all very hopeful, and a good sign, since at least none of the candidates were brave or foolhardy enough to contradict the pro-bike, pro-transit crowd in attendance at the Friends Center to their faces.  In fact, it was eerie how much the candidates sounded alike, until you realized that a lot of the talking points were lifted straight from the election platforms of the Bicycle Coalition and The 5th Square.  How much those documents drove the candidates’ positions was made crystal clear on the last question of the night, when moderator Patrick Kerkstra asked, “What would you do to limit the impact of traffic congestion for SEPTA buses?

Despite my best efforts, bus lanes and Transit Signal Priority have yet to make it onto an election platform this year.  (No, I was not the source of the question last night; that was somebody else in the audience.)  This was the one question where the candidates hadn’t been spoon-fed the “right” answer.  Every single participant sat in befuddled silence.  Kerkstra tried prompting the candidates “this is about bus lanes.  And bus rapid transit.”  No dice.  Eventually former Councillor Jim Kenney improvised a weak but passable answer about Transit Signal Priority.

Let me make this as clear as I possibly can: Bus lanes are the one thing a Mayor of Philadelphia can do to unilaterally assist transit riders.  Everything else requires the approval of Council, or competing with other priorities at SEPTA.  If you are running for Mayor, and you don’t have an agenda that includes bus lanes, transit signal priority, and bus shelters, (which are all things the City does, and not SEPTA) then you have no plan for helping public transit riders in this city, and you should be fucking ashamed of yourself.

Now, to be perfectly clear, there were six very intelligent people up on that stage, and if Lynne Abraham hadn’t left early, there would have been seven.  Snarky pictures aside, I am not saying they had nothing because they were stupid.  I am saying that they are smart, and their failure hurts more because they are smart.  Our politicians, top to bottom, have to shape the hell up.  Or we’re in for a very, very long eight years.

η: As I knew he would, Jim Saksa has his own, better-written, more comprehensive writeup of the forum up at PlanPhilly. (It is only marred by my ugly, scowling mug in the photograph at the bottom.) He sounds almost as disappointed as I am.

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Knowledge is power, especially on bad days

Quick thoughts on SEPTA’s response this morning to the fire in Kensington across from York-Dauphin Station that shut down the El:

Obviously, the root cause of the mess was an enormous fire on someone else’s property that SEPTA could not have prevented, but since “Large Fires in Kensington” seems to be the new normal, at least until someone makes L&I get its shit together, SEPTA might as well have some good plans in the can for dealing with it.

Basically, there’s no way that SEPTA can really have enough spare buses on hand to deal with a disruption this large, on this important a piece of its rail system, at rush hour.  That goes for the El, that goes for the Subway, and that goes for the core of the RRD system.  That being said, they did about as well as could be expected today, pulling buses from multiple depots and off of other busy routes to run the bus bridge between Huntington and Berks.  SEPTA probably could have improved by doing a better job of telling bus riders across the city that their bus service had just taken a minor cut on a cold day, but that’s a relatively minor strike to have as your worst sin.

One thing that I think would be worthwhile in future disruptions, but the technology is a few years away, is push notifications to riders that they should seek alternate routes.  Many El riders in Kensington and the Lower Northeast connect to the El from crosstown bus routes, and would have been best served if they could be instructed to head west to a Broad Street Subway station, which would crowd those buses in a more distributed way, and take some of the load off of the shuttle operation.  That wouldn’t even require pushing notifications to individual riders, although I’m sure that that is coming in the smartphone era, but for major disruptions like this one, having announcements on board buses and scrolling on information displays on buses and at bus shelters would be a major help.

That makes it all the more terrible that the City of Philadelphia didn’t specify any kind of realtime schedule information displays in the new bus shelters it just contracted for with Titan Outdoor — they’re a great improvement in quality-of-life on a daily basis, but in a major disruption like today’s, information is critical.  Why that bad contract isn’t an electoral issue in the upcoming Mayoral and Council contests, I have no idea.  Unlike schools and SEPTA Regional Rail, it’s something where the Mayor and Council have actual authority over, and doesn’t even require City money, but they still muffed it badly.

EDIT: Actually, there is one ongoing SEPTA screwup that exacerbates these problems: the $1 transfer charge.  Consider someone in walking distance of K&A, commuting back and forth to Center City near Market Street.  They use tokens because it doesn’t make financial sense to buy a Transpass unless you transfer or make extra trips on weekends.  Even if they are told what is happening, they are going to be charged $1 for the privilege of taking the 60 to Broad Street and going around the fire zone in reasonable comfort, instead of throwing themselves into the teeth of a chaotic bus bridge operation.  How many Kensingtonians are going to be doing that voluntarily?  A lot fewer than if a transfer was included in the base fare, that’s for certain.

Twitter helpdesks are too valuable to be turned off so early

I’d like to write an enormous longform piece on how, in the first five weeks of this year, SEPTA and PATCO have been handling the disruptions of winter weather, for better and for worse. In lieu of the time to crank out the 10,000+ words the subject could take, let me take some time this morning to write briefly on one simple facet: SEPTA’s realtime Twitter account, @SEPTA_SOCIAL, and its PATCO equivalent @RidePATCO. From what I’ve seen, I’ve come to the conclusion that those accounts need to be kept manned much longer than they are now.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had TweetDeck set up to provide a search timeline for everyone who uses the word “septa” on Twitter; this is one of the things that SEPTA does itself in its social media office. As disruption after disruption rolled in over the last month, there was a definite difference in the tone of the customer complaints, depending on whether the disruption was completely within @SEPTA_SOCIAL’s business hours (7:00-19:00 weekdays, 8:00-18:00 weekends), or if it was even partially while the account was dark. Informed riders are happier (if not necessarily happy) riders. That’s the point of the entire exercise.

SEPTA itself, of course, runs 24/7/365. So does PATCO. I’m not asking that either tiny team of social mediators be on call around-the-clock; that would be too much, too fast. But evening ridership is growing quickly. Occasional riders unfamiliar with the transit system tend to ride in the evenings. For that matter, if an evening rush melts down, it will often still be recovering as the sign-off messages go out at 19:00. That’s not a good thing for a Customer Service operation. So I would ask both agencies to prioritize expanding their social media teams to provide coverage of the Twitter desks through at least 21:00, every night. 23:00 or midnight would be even better. Similarly, PATCO signs on in the morning at 6:00; this might be a good thing for SEPTA to emulate.

I know that that is an odd request, when I’m usually banging the drum for much bigger and more expensive things. But the Twitter helpdesk is critical infrastructure for the early 21st Century, as strange as that seems. No other agency does it as well as SEPTA, and PATCO is obviously trying to learn its neighbor’s lessons, unlike other agencies that have yet to see the light about real-time information. And compared to many other things that make transit better for riders, well-trained Twitter handlers are relatively cheap, and are cost-effective. Something to think about as the finishing touches get put on the draft FY2016 budgets.

December schedule change will carry first fruits of #SEPTAWILM campaign

Back in July, Wilmington-based grad student David Curtis launched an online petition asking Delaware for increased SEPTA Regional Rail service to Wilmington. This week, we are seeing the first results of that show of public support with two new trains to Delaware each weekday. It’s a very promising start.

Curtis and I both estimated the total costs to be on the order of one million dollars per year. Even for a small state like Delaware, that is the DOT budget equivalent of the money sitting in your wallet. Delaware Transit Corporation CEO John Sisson misunderstood the petition as demanding that all Marcus Hook short-turns be extended to Wilmington, which would require a hefty up-front capital investment to clear a physical bottleneck, and his staff came up with the more exorbitant operating cost of $3.3 million per year, which this blog castigated him for in harsh terms. After Sisson met with Curtis in person, things got straightened out as to the actual direction of the petition (off-peak service where the track capacity exists, not peak service where it doesn’t), and apparently the staff at DTC went to work searching for stray funds in the budgetary couch cushions. And it seems they found some.

I reached out to David Curtis for his thoughts on the new changes. “There are currently five major gaps in the weekday service at Wilmington,” Curtis wrote back. “This December 14 service upgrade closes the latest weekday service gap.” In addition to the five current weekday gaps of 90 minutes or longer, Curtis also pointed to the very early end of service on both weekdays and weekends as problematic.

In addition to the headline rail improvements, there will be two new daily roundtrips of the DART Route 59 rail shuttle between Wilmington and Newark. One partially plugs the 3-hour gap westbound/5-hour gap eastbound in the afternoon between the existing midday run of the Route 59 and the evening rush, while the other is an evening run that creates a new “last arrival” time in Newark of 22:15, departing Suburban Station at 20:40. So Philadelphians employed across northern Delaware, as well as Delawareans working in Philadelphia, are now able to stay after work for dinner out and early-evening activities, whereas before it was a very risky gamble to stay after — unless, of course, you had driven to work that day. That kind of uncertainty pushes many people towards driving every day, if they can. Street life in Downtown Wilmington today is anemic, as office workers evacuate the city at the end of the working day, rather than patronize local businesses or entertainment venues, and far too much land is given over to parking cars. This vicious economic cycle has dragged Wilmington down for decades, and the rehabilitation of the city’s heart has only barely begun. As Curtis points out, “These [service] upgrades are great for ridership increases, but they also have tremendous economic development implications. Wilmington’s downtown and riverfront districts have already changed dramatically in recent years. Today, hundreds of additional residential units are under construction and more small businesses are popping up on and around Market Street.” More strongly linking Wilmington’s economy and Southeast Pennsylvania’s can only reinforce that trend.

As for how we can build on this good first step, “Delaware is in the midst of budget preparation for the upcoming fiscal year. The immediate goal is to receive additional funding [from the Delaware General Assembly] for DTC to continue upgrading this service in the upcoming fiscal year, which takes effect July 1. If you’ve been following the Delaware budget hearings, you know that money will be spread pretty thin.” To keep up the pressure on the General Assembly, Governor Jack Markell, DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt, and DTC CEO Sisson, Curtis and I both urge you, if you haven’t yet, to “go to www.septanow.com, sign the petition, and get others to sign it.” Curtis has revised his estimate of the cost of extending every off-peak and weekend train to Wilmington to just shy of $2 million per year, which is higher than our back-of-the-envelope math from July, but reflects more detailed information about the cost structure of Wilmington service, and a more conservative estimate of the cost recovery of more trains. The new trains will grow ridership across the entire schedule, so the net cost to Delaware (after the rebates it receives for ticket sales) should decrease over time. If the full funding is not immediately available next fiscal year, Curtis suggests the extension of three specific evening train pairs as intermediate steps: 235/9236, to extend Saturday service by two hours; 277/9264, to extend weekday service by one hour; and 279/9266, to extend weekday service one additional hour after that. Together, those three trains will cost Delaware an additional $440,000 annually to run, but the implications for both nightlife and swing-shift workers alike should not be underestimated.

As though on cue, an op-ed in Friday’s Wilmington News Journal from a civil engineer shows us what the most likely alternative is to additional transit. According to J. Michael Riemann, Delaware needs to keep feeding the same roadbuilding addiction that’s gotten it into a massive fiscal hole and maintenance backlog. “DelDOT will need to come up with an additional $130 million each year for the next six years to cover the $780 million dollar shortfall (capital funds [i.e. road expansion] of $600 [million] + state of good repair [of $180 million]).” Compared to that, $2 million for hourly train service is an incredible bargain, and will save DelDOT much more than it costs, starting on Day 1. And that’s not just saving the state incredibly unnecessary new roads and road widening, but also allows it to put its roads on diets, and reduce the number of lane-miles it has to plow, salt, and repair, year in and year out. More rail service can pay for itself, only considering the expense side of the ledger. New roads don’t create value, but new rail service will anchor new investment and create new wealth in Downtown Wilmington. Curtis’s conclusion, which I wholeheartedly endorse: “Wilmington’s growth will always be limited if its transportation options are also limited. Delaware can’t afford for that to happen.”

How do we stop Civil Engineers from killing people?

A young girl is in the hospital, not expected to survive. Her cousin has leg and head injuries, and her mother is also injured.

And mild-mannered Minnesotan Chuck Marohn is in a white-hot rage about it.

I don’t fundamentally disagree with his point that we’ve shielded civil engineers from our liability- and litigation-happy traditions, and that that exclusion needlessly costs thousands of lives a year. But I don’t know how to get from our current model, which incentivizes Following The Book above all else, to a model that favors actually designing streets to be safe, and I don’t know that anybody else does, either. I agree that a feature of a new model is going to be the ability to sue engineers (and/or DOTs) for the fatal consequences of roads that are unsafe as designed, but I don’t know what the intermediate state between here and there is. We’ve been following our old (broken) model for decades now. Basically every civil engineer practicing today who has ever touched a streetscape diagram (i.e. most of them) is culpable. What do we do about that? Do we fire them all? Strip them all of their licenses? I… am not there yet. The profession has a problem, yes. (Well, many problems.) But burning everything down doesn’t actually get us anywhere.

We need a way to absolve Civil Engineering of its massive backlog of past sins if we’re ever going to get it to stop committing more.

I don’t know what that looks like. Mandatory retraining? A Truth and Reconciliation Commission taking public confessions? Maybe. Those suggestions sound absurd, but it can’t be worse than the daily massacre we have now.

A Note on the Importance of Frequency in Regional Transit

Itinerant Urbanist looks at how high frequency service makes PATCO an entirely different beast from SEPTA Regional Rail, even with very old data. One note to add; the recent PATCO debacles with the bridge construction schedules can be interpreted as PATCO being forced to give up its major attraction, its high frequency. And in that light, the PR nightmare that ensued was entirely predictable.

Itinerant Urbanist

Apologies for the long periods between posts. I’ve been caught up with school, work, and the Jewish holidays, so time for blogging has been infrequent. That being said, here’s a short post on something that caught my eye as I was doing research for a paper.

Anyone interested in planning, economic, or transportation issues should be aware of a series of papers authored by Richard Voith, a former economic advisor to the Philadelphia Fed, Wharton School professor, and member of the SEPTA board. His writing covers topics like capitalization of transit access, urban-suburban real estate dynamics, and transit efficiencies. The last topic is the subject of a 1994 paper titled “Public transit: Realizing its potential,” published in the Philadelphia Fed Business Review. The paper is a general argument, but it also includes some interesting data on Philly transit systems circa 1994, which I thought it would be interesting to…

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Weekly Roundup: Pay as you enter, IBEW settles, police body cams, Greenlee may be a fool, and Previdi definitely is

Another edition brought to you by the World’s Worst Blogger:

  • In the end of an era, SEPTA has announced that, beginning on September 1, pay-as-you-leave will be abolished on the Suburban Transit routes out of 69th Street Terminal where it is currently the rule. This will standardize the entire SEPTA transit system on the more logical and familiar pay-as-you-enter rule, ostensibly in preparation for NPT. One hopes that it will be the precursor to other steps to bring further sanity to SEPTA’s fare system. Dare we suggest abolishing the $1 transfer fee and adjusting the base fare to compensate in 2016? We can recapture the efficiencies of open boarding at 69th Street while retaining the simplicity and sense of pay-as-you-enter by putting bus and trolley boarding areas at 69th Street inside the faregates. Think on it, SEPTA!
  • A SEPTA electrical worker participating in the Trolley Tunnel Blitz apparently misjudged the distance to the adjacent active MFL tracks, and was struck by an El train in the tunnel at 22nd Street Monday afternoon. The worker, who was rushed to Hahnemann University Hopsital with injuries to the head and knee, is expected to recover soon; the Monday evening rush hour, already disrupted by the Trolley Blitz, was snarled by an El shutdown, followed by single tracking around the accident site.
  • Speaking of SEPTA electrical workers, the IBEW local representing Regional Rail workers reached a tentative contract agreement with management yesterday. IBEW was one of the two unions that staged a 24-hour-long strike this past June; the other union, representing Regional Rail’s engineers, is still in talks, and is making pessimistic statements.
  • The eyes of the world are riveted on the absolute failure of policing in Ferguson, MO, where riots and police riots have ensued after the fatal shooting of a unarmed young man by police officer. The body camera that could have told us much about that initial encounter, instead reportedly sat in a box in Ferguson PD headquarters, as North St. Louis County police officers, like many around the country, are resistant to adopting them. Meanwhile, in a display of what policing should look like, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel thinks body cameras are the awesomest thing ever, and cannot wait until all of his officers are wearing one. Kudos, Chief!
  • The #SEPTAWILM petition is still going, having passed the 1,500 signature mark last night. And as petition starter David Curtis notes, the riders and potential riders already know that expanding off-peak Wilmington service is of mutual benefit to both Delaware and Pennsylvania: the ratio of petition signers from DE to petition signers from PA is less than 1.02:1.
  • As if the ongoing ad blitz and the swirling rumors of an imminent naming rights deal with Verizon for Suburban Station weren’t enough, Verizon’s archrival Comcast has found the name of its headquarters scrubbed from SEPTA signage throughout the concourse.
  • An extension of the 22nd Street Bike Lane from Spring Garden to Fairmount is being held up because Councilman Bill Greenlee’s office is afraid of numbers. Actually, maybe not, but that’s one of the more charitable interpretations. The space on the pavement for the bike lane is there, and it’s not taking away a legal car travel lane, just an unmarked, illegal, car travel lane.
  • Bob Previdi needs to shut up forever. The way to bring Amtrak into Suburban Station (and Market East!) already exists, and it’s called the free transfer onto SEPTA Regional Rail (Ctrl+F “Amtrak”). Quit trying to spend scarce money to fix something that isn’t broke, and especially don’t waste money trying to do something in hardware that is best taken care of in software.