Thursday, November 20, 2008

Newton Centre Traffic Study

Missed last night's Public Safety & Transportation meeting last night. Among other things, missed the presentation of Traffic Solution's study of Newton Centre.

Lots to digest, but loving the roundabout proposals!


The CAG and meters

The TAB reports that the Citizens Advisory Group has issued some preliminary recommendations for revenue enhancement for the city. Good to see increased parking fees on the list. This is somewhat analogous to higher tolls. As a general principle, it's good for drivers to bear the costs of driving, and meter fees are a good and appropriate method to do so, just as it is good and appropriate to charge tolls on some roads.

But, as with tolls, there is a good way and a bad way to implement a meter fee hike. You can impose the hikes in a way that simply raises money, or you can impose the hikes in a way that accomplishes some other valuable objectives.

The bad way to rais parking fees would be to simply do an across-the-board hike. The right way would be to implement demand-based pricing.

As discussed in more detail here, demand-based meter fees are designed to encourage high turn-over of the most desirable parking spaces. The city needs to discriminate between prime spaces and not-so-prime spaces. In Newton Centre, for example, the prime spots would be those along Langley Road. The less prime spaces would be those in the municipal lots. Similarly in Newtonville, the prime spaces would be those along Walnut Street and the less prime would be those in the municipal lots. (All villages have their own prime and less prime, I won't give examples for each.)

Through a little trial-and-error, the city should set rates on Langley and Walnut high enough to achieve 85% occupancy — about one free space per block. Such occupancy is good for business. There is regular turnover of spaces, meaning more potential customers able to get spaces. And, the prime spaces go to the people who place a higher value on them, people who are more likely to shop and spend.

Those for whom the prime-space rates are too high can use the less prime spaces. They are given the reasonable choice between walking a bit farther or paying more.

Back to the CAG. Good for them for thinking about higher meter rates. Let's hope that, if the recommendation is taken, that the rates will be applied for the maximum benefit.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rep. Balser: gas tax hike is fairer

Rep. Ruth Balser, who supplied me with the Speaker's statement on a gas tax increase, had this to say:

I am glad that we in the House will consider alternative ways of solving the financial crisis facing our transportation system. It is unfair to expect that those of us in Newton and our neighbors in the Metro-West area shoulder so much of the burden of the financial crisis. An increase to the gas tax would be a more equitable solution.

Sounds like Rep. Balser is taking the long view and also making sure that those of us in Newton don't foot more than our share.


Speaker DiMasi supports a gas tax hike

Speaker Sal DiMais has just issued a statement in favor of a gas tax increase.

Given the excessive proposal now on the table for doubling some tolls, one that will cost drivers in certain areas hundreds of dollars more each year just to get to work, I believe we must seriously consider alternatives like a gas tax increase. The fact is, the Massachusetts gas tax is below the national average and, while we would all prefer not to burden drivers with any new cost in difficult times, I believe the gas tax is a fairer way to share our costs and it should be fully considered before any tolls are increased.

Tough to tell whether the speaker supports just enough gas tax increase to offset the proposed toll hikes or something high enough to really reduce or eliminate the driving subsidy.

The devil will be in the details.

But, a good start.


The Metro West case for (smart) toll hikes

With local legislators whipped into a frenzy to stop the toll hikes, it might pay to stop and reflect on who would benefit if the tolls went up: Metro West commuters.

A toll hike is going to take drivers off the road. I don't think that's a controversial claim. While some portion of the population is locked into a choice-less commute, some are not. Witness the steadily decreasing Pike usage figures as gas prices rose. Some people had a choice and chose not to drive.

It won't take a huge decrease in peak traffic to improve congestion. That person paying nearly double to get from Newton to downtown is going to find the commute's a whole heckuva lot easier without all those pesky drivers-with-choice around.

And, time is money, especially for small business owners, who will find that it takes less time to get goods and services (perhaps delivered by the small businesswomen herself) downtown.

But, the congestion relief is minimized if there isn't a benefit to traveling off-peak for those who can. If it's going to cost me the same at 7:00 AM as at 10:00, I've lost my incentive to travel off-peak.

There have to be some more well-to-do suburbanite commuters who are salivating at the chance to speed their commute for a few thousand a year. The less well-to-do might not be so unhappy at the prospect of premium-priced, exclusionary commuting, if the premium the fat cats pay subsidizes their off-peak commute.

Matt Yglesias makes a similar point regarding congestion pricing in general. Matt's commenters have a ball debating queue v. price rationing, regressivity, and redistribution.


It's officially on the table

The Globe's Yvonne Abraham on gas tax and tolls: raise the tax and spare us the toll increases. She makes the limited free-rider case. Massachusetts drivers who use the toll roads should not subsidize those who don't. A gas tax hike would be fairer.

We at NS&S advocate the larger free-rider case. The total cost of road and bridge maintenance and construction should be covered by some combination of gas tax and tolls.

Abraham notes that State Rep. David Linsky (D-Natick) has proposed a six-cent increase in the gas tax. (I couldn't find a news story.) On Fox25 last night, I heard Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) argue in favor of it. No matter. It's too small a hike, but a step in the right direction. And, it shouldn't be an alternative to a toll hike, but an alternative to a toll hike off-peak. But, may it find a thousand state reps to claim it as their own proposal.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Back-door peak pricing

Lots of good comments about some of the challenges of peak pricing here, here, here, and here.

Let me propose a practical, feasible first step that addresses many of the concerns: raise Pike tolls, but only during peak periods. Leave the existing toll rate during off-peak periods. This gives people who want to avoid the toll hike an option. They can go earlier or later than the peak period.

Imagine the people who can't afford or don't want to afford the toll hike. They'll either stick with their current commute pattern, reducing the congestion benefit. Or, they'll take alternative routes, reducing congestion on the Pike, but creating new congestion on the alternative routes.

If the rate goes up just during peak periods, those drivers who don't want to or can't pay more have another alternative: avoid the toll hike and pay the current rate (which they are already willing/able to pay) by going at another time. This may not be possible for everyone, but it does create an alternative that may alleviate the impact on lower-income families of the hike and alleviate the impact of alternative-route seekers for affected communities. It won't take much of a peak-time reduction to ease congestion.

And, such a peak-pricing trial would prove out (or disprove) the anticipated benefits of market-rate tolls.

To make up the lost opportunity of additional revenue during off-peak periods, raise the gas tax.


Monday, November 17, 2008

How do you say "induced demand" with a Boston accent?

Let every person who claims that all we need to cure Route 9's or Needham Street's problems is a little more capacity read this: the Globe reports that congestion is up -- measurably -- on all roads leading to the Central Artery.


Both a gas tax and a (smart) toll hike

If nothing else, Friday's decision by the soon-to-expire Turnpike Authority to jack Pike tolls through the roof has rendered a statement in favor of a gas tax hike restoration fit for polite company. Even Howie Carr recognizes the virtues of a higher gas tax. (From Dan Kennedy. I haven't listened to Howie since I stopped my Pike commute.)

But, it shouldn't be an either/or. We need an increase in the gas tax to more directly and equitably pay for road and bridge construction and maintenance ... and to help finance more mass transit. We need a smart toll hike to both provide additional revenue and to make better use of Pike capacity. And, we need virtual tolls on I-93 for the same additional-revenue and capacity-management reasons as on the Pike and because it would be more equitable.

Set aside the virtuous reasons for a gas tax hike. We need a gas tax hike because we can't afford to build and maintain our transportation infrastructure. If cars and trucks need more and better roads and bridges, then it should fall more directly on car and truck drivers to pay for them. It's little wonder that the state has no money for roads, bridges, and transit. The price of a gallon of gas has nearly tripled since 1991 (compared to the recent, relatively low prices), and the state's take has stayed the same: $0.21. If you were to simply apply the same effective rate as in 1991, the tax would be nearly $0.75. Imagine the shiny bridges and pothole-free roads the state could afford with more than three times the gas tax revenue. I would also suggest that a higher gas tax be distributed to municipalities for snow-clearing so that drivers bear that burden more directly, too.

If the state were to raise the gas tax, why bother raising tolls on the Pike or applying new tolls on 93? Two reasons. One, because those roads are expensive to maintain and there's a huge debt service on the Big Dig that's fair to allocate to Boston-area Pike and 93 traffic. Second, because there is congestion on both. The second reason demands not a simple toll hike, but a smart one: a peak-pricing scheme that will alleviate congestion at times of highest demand.

During heaviest use, there are two types of drivers in a Pike backup: those who are willing to put up with the traffic, but less willing to put up with a higher toll and those who would be willing to pay a higher -- even substantially higher -- toll if it would lead to a shorter trip time. It's a lousy allocation of demand. The second group is really inconvenienced by the first group, but there's no mechanism to keep the first group off the highway during peak times.

Raise the toll during the peak time and and the first group would avoid a toll hike by using the pike off-peak. (Some would use alternative routes, which is why a toll hike should also include mitigation to cities and towns likely to get cut-through traffic.) The second group would get the benefit of a premium toll. During rush hour, the Pike would be used by the people who value it most.

The benefit would be probably be even more dramatic on 93, where there is much heavier commercial traffic. It might be worth a lot more than the peak-pricing premium for a business owner to get his or her truck through Boston without the typical delay. That premium would help subsidize travel for those who are willing to go at a different time.

Higher gas tax? Absolutely. But, raise the tolls, too. Only not all the time.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Comfort level, not limits

Writing to the NewMobilityCafe user group, Richard Layman of Urban Places and Spaces had an insightful comment on the New York Times speed limit article that I posted about earlier this week. Here is his comment in full:

Many of us have made this point for some time, that roads typically are "over"engineered to allow high speeds, as are cars. Therefore, for areas where you don't want to encourage people to drive fast (on a road on the edge of Greater Capitol Hill in DC--still urban--a car was clocked by a speed camera going over 90mph late at night, in a zone with a posted 25mph speed limit), change the materials of the road. I myself am fond of stone Belgian Block. With it, you get physical, visual, and aural cues that you should drive more slowly. And it's not likely to be supportive of 90-100mph speeds.

Using Belgian block/appropriately engineering roads based on the desired speed in many cases would eliminate the "need" for speed bumps, speed tables, and other road pimples.

But yeah, a truly "robustly" engineered road system wouldn't require secondary enforcement (police writing tickets) to optimize the system, it would engineer the system of pavements to generate the optimal result. (Emphasis added.)

I'm not sure about the universal feasibility of his proposed solution, but he make an indisputable point. The reason people drive too fast through our neighborhoods is that our streets are designed in a way that encourages them to drive that fast.

Clint Schuckel says that the goal in Newton is to make drivers uncomfortable but not unsafe. But, even Mr. Schuckel's very reasonable formulation sounds negative, as if the goal is to do something bad to drivers, to take something away from them. Maybe the better way to put it is this: the goal is to create on every street a level of driver comfort that corresponds to the appropriate speed for the street.

It's not that we have to make people uncomfortable. We need to take away some of the excess comfort.


Monday, November 10, 2008

The limits of limits

No shocker here.

When it comes to speeding, many American motorists don’t worry about safety. They just worry about getting caught.

Those are the findings by researchers from Purdue University who surveyed nearly 1,000 motorists about speed limits and driving habits. They found that many drivers are cynical about the safety benefits of driving within speed limits, and many think they can drive safely while speeding as long as they won’t get caught, according to the report in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.

Speed limits and enforcement are not the answer to excess speed in our neighborhoods. Design speed is. Take advantage of driver's self-interest and make it uncomfortable to drive fast. Here's a bit from Newton's own City Traffic Engineer Clint Schuckel in a Globe West article last week about student-designed traffic signs in Needham:

In Newton, the idea is to actually make drivers a little uneasy about going too fast.

"I think the goal of traffic calming is to make a driver uncomfortable without making them unsafe," said Clint Schuckel, Newton's traffic engineer. "We want to encourage people to slow down physically - such as a raised intersection or design a road to make it feel more narrow, less forgiving."

Narrower. Less forgiving. Slower. Safer.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Halloween and walking

Last year it occurred to me that Halloween was America's celebration of the joys of walking. I had a similar warm feeling as I walked with dozens of others around my neighborhood this year.

Then, I read about a nine-year-old and his mother killed as he trick-or-treated in Westfield Friday night. That's the part of being a pedestrian in this country that should not be celebrated.

Where could the driver have been going so urgently on Halloween that she didn't take more care looking out for little kids?