Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Times they are a changin'

If you go to the urban planning textbooks of 1907, they are filled with horse-shit. Not bad writing or ideas, but literally horseshit. New York City had over a million horses dropping an astonishing amount of poop on the streets. All major cities hired men to pick it up, put it in wagons and dump it into the nearest water—usually the nearest river. Everyone knew that they had a problem, everyone knew that dumping it in the river wasn’t the solution and they saw no choice but to continue doing so. Afterall, they needed horses and horses needed to do what horses do. They saw no solution.

Maybe we are at the same place—sort of.

We look out on the urban landscape and we see traffic. It seems that the only thing to do is to build more roads, bridges and even mass transit. But especially more roads, parking lots and generally cover the land with concrete from end-to-end, side-to-side, up-and-down. Maybe there is another answer.

There are changes in play, coming into being and over the horizon that may allow us to not pave the world with concrete (that won’t work anyway; never has and never will).

Let’s start with the cars and trucks themselves. Even a decade ago, you expected even a new car to break down every once in a while. General Motors is now offering a ‘lifetime guarantee’; as long as you own the car, they pay for repairs. They wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t pretty sure that the cars and trucks that they make won’t need repair very often. Expect the other makers to follow suit. Cars and trucks are just better built than even a decade ago. A used car salesman once told me that the turning point was the year 2000. Car makers simply stopped building crummy cars. (Yes, every once in a while one gets built, but on the whole, no more lemons.)

While Hummers still are far too numerous (‘one’ is ‘too numerous’), some people are buying smaller cars like the Mini Cooper, the Smart Car and even smaller vehicles. (If every car was a Smart Car, we wouldn’t be having this conversation—of at the very least, it would be very different.)

Airbags are becoming commonplace and will soon be on nearly every vehicle and then, fatal accidents will not be so commonplace. Fatal accidents cause a lot of congestion. Some fatal accident investigations close the road for five hours.

Anti-locking Brake Systems (ABS) are becoming more standard and accidents are less frequent.

Mercedes Benz is working on a car that simply steers-and-brakes itself to avoid all accidents. It will not take over the process of driving the car—unless you are heading into an accident. Benz engineers report that the test drivers hate it: “they try to hit each other and the cars won’t let them. They get very frustrated.”

This is not to say that there won’t be any accidents; their numbers are going up. But soon the number of accidents, their severity and consequences will be going down.

Figure that nearly every car will have a camera recording your driving in five years. Insurance companies will demand it. It will stop thieves and end the legal wrangling over ‘who hit John?’ Ever-present cameras will simply force some of the really bad, horrible drivers off of the road—they won’t be able to get anyone to insure them.

At the same time, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) will be on every car. (Hell, GPS will be installed on practically every thing you own that is worth more than a few thousand dollars.) The GPS will take all of the fun out of being an auto thief. Better for traffic control, it will mean that you will never be truly lost again. More important, when traffic does get bad, it will offer meaningful options. Not merely alternative roads and routes, but the average speed, real time estimates on time saved and so on. Even if you have never driven in Orange County, you would be given a real alternative to the freeway to get you through.

Meanwhile, our transportation needs are changing.

Finally, some bosses, a few companies and even a union or two are coming to the understanding that not all of us work best from precisely 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. A few brave souls are—gasp—letting their workers set their own start-and-stop times. Some people work best if they are at their desk when the sun comes up. A few are better if they sleep in and work later. Some even work best at night. A few bosses are beginning to understand that it is best to let people set their own hours.

Boeing has a huge plant in Everett. Each and every worker has a different start-and-stop minute. No more traffic jams, no more traffic and Boeing loses no down time as one shift leaves and another comes in. As each person arrives, they blend in with the team already at work.

Newsweek reports that by 2009, 27% of us will be telecommuting. Some us arrive at work at 9:00 and spend the first hour answering phone messages and emails and so on. You could do that from home and drive into work at 10:00 when there is hardly any traffic.

Even on the construction side, things are changing. High Performance Concrete costs a lot more (basically concrete with a more precise mix of materials) but is twenty percent lighter and forty percent stronger. Fiber carbons may be incorporated into construction. Measurements are more accurate and that means that the road can be better and last longer. Most importantly, some engineers are beginning to understand that we need to do a lot more pre-cast of concrete parts, brought to the site and snapped together. In Vancouver, they built an eleven mile elevated concrete trackway for the light rail in fourteen months using pre-cast methods. Here in Seattle, Sound Transit saved $40 million per mile by building pre-cast elevated track between Boeing Field and SeaTac over the old pour-the-road-on-the-ground old school.

Even mass transit is undergoing changes.

Everywhere there are thinking people, there are people who understand that in order to move at any kind of speed worth talking about, your mass transit vehicle must be up-and-off the ground. Magnetic levitation (maglev) can move at something like 350 mph, but it must be on an elevated track. They have built one in Shanghai that goes to the airport and they may extend it. The monorail is successful where it has been built. There is a monorail built from Haneda Airport to Tokyo and several years ago they moved their one billionth passenger with no accidents, no fatalities and not one unscheduled stop on the tracks in over forty years of operation. And reportedly, they make a profit. Even buses can be elevated and automated as VAL has done in Lille France.

If you get up-and-out of traffic, you can beat the car. You can also automate, which in turn means that you can make money (drivers are seventy-five percent of the cost of operating any system).

There is a growing understanding that the farebox is one of the least profitable parts of any mass transit. I used to drive a bus from downtown to the airport. The bus company contracted with an advertising firm to ‘wrap’ the bus with ads. Those ads brought in five thousand dollars a month. That one ad paid the bus drivers’ salaries.

King County here in Seattle has one hundred million riders per year and anyone who has attended business school in the past ten years will tell you that you should be selling these captive people something. Someone, somewhere in some mass transit agency will figure this out. Seattle Tacoma International Airport has 35 million visitors a year and they sell them $350 million of food, drinks and services.

New York City got all new bus shelters by letting someone sell ads on the side of the shelters—and the advertising company cleans them, too.

You can make money moving millions of people; you just have to want to do it, is all.

Back in the 1970’s, there was a cry of “Infrastructure Crisis!”. The greatest concern were the pipes—pipes that bring water to us and pipes that carry sewage away. The cost of digging up al of those pipes, replacing them and reburying them was astronomical. Then someone remembered that the Navy had come up with a solution to their old pipes on their ships. What they did was insert a plastic-like lining into the old pipe. The new sleeve adhered to the inside of the pipe, water or sewage flowed through and it was like a new pipe.

I am wondering if we might make some small changes that accumulatively would allow us to travel but without the staggering bill.

I am beginning to wonder if Seattle and the rest of America isn’t making a mistake spending a couple of trillion dollars of tax money on an infrastructure that was built for a different time and a different way of living, working and traveling. It would surely be worth looking at before we committed everything we have in an attempt to build us out of congestion when the entire picture may change while we are working on the problem. The problem is, when we get done—and it will never truly be done—we just may stand back and ask ourselves just why we spent all of this money. And our children will have to pay the bill.

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