USDOT Under Secretary Polly Trottenberg Visits the Rudin Center


by Nolan Levenson, photos by Marilyn Lopez

Polly Trottenberg, Under Secretary of the US Department of Transportation, visited with the NYU Rudin Center and Wagner students, faculty, transportation professionals, and representatives of the media last week to discuss timely issues in federal transportation policy. Her talk focused on financing transportation, the successes of the TIGER grant program, and the increasing role of technology and data in government.

She also addressed how the Sequester will impact USDOT. Since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) composes about 75% of the USDOT’s budget, they will bear the burden of the spending cuts. Airports with less traffic may lose their funding. There will also likely be impacts to the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) budget, but about half of USDOT will be unaffected.

Ms. Trottenberg also highlighted the increasing difficulty of financing transportation as the gas tax no longer covers the nation’s transportation infrastructure needs. She pointed to tools such as gas sales taxes and Vehicles Miles Traveled (VMT) taxes, and emphasized tolling of highways as a potential significant revenue source. She acknowledged that while federal transportation law prevents the tolling of existing road capacity, state law and legislators have also failed to initiate policies that would change this limitation, which creates a political block on a potential new revenue source for transportation. In general, she said, she believes that state transportation policy must be pushed in a more progressive direction.

Many in the room were happy to hear Ms. Trottenberg’s support for more open data and advanced technology use at the federal government. She said that USDOT should tap into the resources of the private sector to better understand and analyze transportation issues throughout the country. She pointed to a moment when her staff was on the phone with Google employees in Stuttgart, Germany, when the USDOT staff asked about the reliability of real-time traffic data. After a pause of a few seconds, the Google employees responded, “well it’s not like it’s more than 60 seconds off,” a response met with laughter by USDOT staff considering that to be, of course, extremely reliable. The story was also received with laughter during our discussion, and the audience appreciated the example for government’s need to tap into existing technological resources.

Workshop on New Data for Bicycling Research: Crowdsourcing, DIY Sensing & Apps


On March 12, Anthony Townsend of the NYU Rudin Center and Aaron Naparstek of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning convened a workshop on New Data for Bicycling Research: Crowdsourcing, DIY Sensing & Apps to assess the demand and availability for a wide range of data about bicycle ownership and use in New York City. There was active participation from a broad range of stakeholders including the city’s transportation and IT agencies, leading bicycling advocates, and civic tech and hacker groups. In the coming months, the Rudin Center will be developing a research plan devoted to improving the supply and quality of data for bicycle research in New York City.

A Prezi of the workshop proceedings can be found at
http://prezi.com/w6sxxqt7bsgt/new-data-for-bicycling-research/
Workshop Participants

Neil Bezdek, New York City Department of Transportation
Justin Brandon, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Wendy E. Brawer, Green Map System
Alison Cohen, Independent consultant
Neil Freeman, New York City Department of Transportation
Melinda Brooke Hanson, NYU Rudin Center
Frank Hebbert, OpenPlans
Noel Hidalgo, Code for America
Mike Infranco, Transportation Alternatives
Charles Komanoff, IGC
Dan LaTorre, Project for Public Spaces
Stephanie Levinsky, New York City Department of Transportation
Aaron Naparstek, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Andrew Nicklin, New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecomunications
Brian Riordan, Strava
Caroline Samponaro, Transportation Alternatives
Dani Simons, Independent consultant
Claudio Silva, NYU Center for Uurban Science and Progress
Anthony Townsend, NYU Rudin Center
Chris Whong, NYU Rudin Center
Matthew Willsee, Cyclee
Susi Wunsch, Velojoy

Open Transportation Data in NY


As part of the Open Transportation Data Meetup, we’ve created a Google Doc to centralize all available transportation data for the NY region in one place. The document is publicly editable and ready to be populated and discussed (wishlist items accepted as well). Check it out here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AoNd04_Ge-SpdGFwSWtpa0F1ZGVzS19oZGxNektSVnc&usp=sharing

Your contributions and suggestions are welcome!

Smart Transportation and Sustainability


Rudin Research Associate Sarah Kaufman spoke at yesterday’s Transportation Equity Conference in Albany to discuss the role of smart transportation in environmental sustainability. The topic is more complex than it seems: as driving becomes easier with tools like autonomous cars, traffic sensing and self-aware parking spots, how can we continue to reduce car use, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions? In the United States, commutes are growing ever-longer, as the NYU Rudin Center showed with our Super-Commuter report last year: fast-growing numbers of Americans are traveling more than 90 minutes or 90 miles each way, usually by car.

We can use technology to make transit more enticing:

- Open data lets travelers see schedules before they reach a station

- Social media informs them of delays, so they can re-route

- Open source planning tools, like NYC DOT’s Fourth Avenue project, give travelers a say in future developments

- Advanced fare payment systems, like MBTA’s mobile payments, make it easy to board even when the right fare is unavailable

– Walkability measures, like those provided by Walkscore, allow us to choose our housing locations by the ability to run errands on foot or use transit for a commute, saving money and waistlines.

These are just some basic tools to make transit a more pleasurable and efficient experience (several, like augmented reality, are on the horizon, and will shift our mobility patterns even further). For environmental and economic needs, these foundational technologies must be in place to bring riders over to transit and mitigate automobile dependence.

Event Recap: NY Open Transportation Data Meetup


Last night, the NYU Rudin Center co-organized the kickoff meeting of the NY Open Transportation Data Meetup group, with Noel Hidalgo of Code for America and Cate Contino of Straphangers Campaign. The event was held at the great ThoughtWorks space. Presentations by Neil Freeman of NYC DOT and Mike Frumin of MTA showed the variety of data sets currently available.

The event also featured community announcements by NYU Wagner students promoting an upcoming design challenge surrounding Chinatown Bus regulations, Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans showcasing the IfWeKnew tool, and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA previewing its upcoming report on data visualizations.

The group also discussed its wishlist for future data sets and projects, which will be posted on the group’s site shortly.

Hope to see you at the next event!

Rush Hour in Williamsburg…at 1 AM


By Carson Qing

Last September, one of our research assistants at the NYU Rudin Center, Nolan Levenson, took an interesting picture at the Bedford Avenue subway station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (right). The subway platform was filled to capacity with straphangers, but what makes the photo interesting is that the image was captured in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, at 1:30 AM. There has been much discussion, and subsequent action, over the issue of providing more L-train service on the weekends to better serve this ridership growth, but the image of a subway platform filled to near capacity at 1:30 AM on a Sunday morning, when Manhattan-bound trains run on 20 minute headways, raises some interesting questions about travel characteristics along this particular subway line.
Since 2005, ridership on the L train has soared, with every station in Brooklyn posting double digit growth rates in ridership on weekdays (with the exception of Broadway Junction). On weekends, ridership by station has grown at even faster rates: tripling or even quadrupling the ridership growth on an average weekday for a given station. The Morgan Avenue station in Bushwick had the greatest ridership growth on both weekdays (+59%) and weekends (+174%) of all L-train stops in Brooklyn from 2005 to 2010. The Bedford Avenue station in Williamsburg had the greatest absolute increase in average weekday ridership (+5,867) and average Saturday ridership (+9,236) from 2005 to 2010. The two maps below compare ridership growth on an average weekday (left) and on average weekend (right) for all L-train stations in Brooklyn, from 2005 to 2010.

 

To examine these weekend ridership trends in more detail, I used the MTA’s turnstile data and took a sample of a turnstile at the Bedford Avenue station over one week in August 2012 to identify trends in peak hours of subway ridership, and what could be driving these patterns in weekend ridership. I classified both entries and exits into the Bedford Avenue station and identified “peak hours” in subway ridership, which were hourly intervals that were in the top 25% of all intervals in the sample data in total entries or exits into the station. The results are summarized in the chart below (note: data is only for a single turnstile, and is only meant to illustrate ridership trends):

What’s remarkable about this case study for Bedford Avenue is that not only are there ridership peaks for long durations on Saturday (8 am to 4 am Sunday) and Sunday (8 am to 8 pm), but entry/exit figures are actually comparable to morning and evening rush hours during the work week: thus, growth in weekend ridership at Bedford Avenue has increased so much that it may very well have resulted in an “extended rush hour” for almost the entire weekend.

Even more remarkable is that the peak entry hours on Saturday night actually extend into the wee hours of Sunday morning for the sampled data, suggesting that the crowded subway platform at 1:30 AM might in fact be quite a common occurrence. Given recent, dramatic changes in demographics and land use patterns in Williamsburg, these unusual peak hour trip patterns should be expected. Not only has there been a well-documented influx in 25-to-34 year olds in Williamsburg (25% of the population, compared to 17% in 2006, according to census data), but there has also been a significant growth in restaurants and bars that are open late on weekends and draw young New Yorkers from across the city to the neighborhood (117% increase in full service restaurants and 59% increase in bars since 2005, according to census business data). The peak entry hours from 12 am to 4 am on a Sunday morning should be expected given the context of how Williamsburg has changed dramatically in just a few short years, as many of the restaurant and bar patrons are likely contributing to this peak period of subway ridership during these late night hours.

These trends reveal that due to the growth in weekend ridership on the L-train, conventional assumptions of travel demand for this particular subway line may no longer be appropriate, and may require some adjustments in service offerings during weekend evenings, late nights, and other times of day. According to subway schedules, the MTA currently runs roughly 43 Manhattan-bound trains on the L during a weekday morning rush hour (8 am-12 pm) and 48 Manhattan-bound trains during Saturday afternoon (4 pm-8 pm), falling to roughly 32 on Saturday night (8 pm -12 am) and 13 during weekend late-night hours (12am-4 am Sunday). With only 13 trains during one of the busiest travel periods of the entire week, crowded platforms at Bedford Avenue and nearby stations during late Saturday nights/early Sunday mornings will likely be commonplace going forward.

The growth in weekend ridership on the L-train in Brooklyn and peak travel demand during unconventional hours show how as cities and neighborhoods evolve, traditional assumptions of “rush hour” travel will inevitably change. Transportation providers should be flexible and adaptable to recognize these anomalies, rather than assume that travel characteristics are uniform system-wide, and respond by offering level of services that are appropriate given these unique patterns in peak travel demand.

Have you taken the L from Bedford Avenue during late night hours on the weekend? Are weekend, late night hours in Williamsburg comparable to weekday morning “rush hours?” Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Social Media in Disasters: TRB presentation


We’ve posted Sarah Kaufman’s presentation on “Social Media in Disaster Preparation, Response and Recovery” from the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting on Slideshare. View below:

We’ll have a report on the same topic coming out in the next couple of months; please let us know if you have experiences to share on this subject.
Photo: Leah Flax

A Modest Proposal: Transportation Enterprise Zones


It’s a quiet week here at NYU and the Rudin Center, with the students still out on break and many of my colleagues in Washington, DC for the annual Transportation Research Board conference. I skipped the conference, but did make it to George Mason University’s School of Public Policy on Saturday morning for Transportation Camp DC, an un-conference organized by Frank Hebbert of NYC-based Open Plans.

Like all unconferences, Transportation Camp’s sessions were hit-or-miss. But I managed to end up in three that were quite interesting.

The first was on crowdsourcing strategies for mapping bike travel, organized by Kari Watkins and Alex Poznanski of Georgia Tech. They have been updating the CycleTracks app first launched by the city of San Francisco (which has received tens of thousands of trip logs from bikers) to map bike trips in Atlanta. This is a topic that’s dear to my heart, and I’m thinking actively about how Rudin can advance similar strategies here in New York to lay a baseline understanding of how bikes are used before the CitiBike launch this spring.

The second was about tactical urbanism and its meaning for transportation (I missed the organizer’s name unfortunately). Most of the discussion was about how tactical or informal and formal urban interests can interact. One participant suggested the need for a national organization like Project for Public Spaces to step up and develop a toolkit for helping community activists cross the bridge from tactical intervention to pilot, and how to connect with organizations like arts councils, business improvement districts, etc. that can inter-mediate their relations with authorities to get needed permissions and funds to evolve beyond one-offs.

The final conversation was about what session leader Andrew Jawitz of Car Free Maine called “civic hardware” – using cheap DIY technologies like Arduino and Raspberry Pi to build automated vehicle trackers for under $200. (Perhaps the best example was the Transit Appliance  that turned the beloved Chumby into an ambient next bus display for your desk or night stand)

• • •

The real epiphany of the day for me popped into my head during the tactical urbanism session, and really gelled during the civic hardware chat. Just like the old American maxim that “states are the laboratories of democracy”, by corollary “blocks are the laboratories of a city”, someone said.

Well then, why don’t we change the rules for transportation in the places that are really problematic?

What if we designated “transportation enterprise zones” and encourage experimentation and innovation by loosening some of the regulations that stifle mobility innovation? Immediately, a bunch of recent examples where this approach might have helped came to mind. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, huge swaths of New Jersey’s Hudson County were cut off from Manhattan due to the months-long knockout of PATH commuter rail (service to Hoboken, where I live, has still not been fully restored nearly three months after the storm). While buses, ferries and licensed taxis filled many of the gaps, and informal vans (so-called “dollar vans”) already carry many passengers across the river to New York each day (because as interstate commerce they cannot be regulated by the Port Authority or either state), I wondered if there might have been other rules that could be relaxed – parking, pickup and dropoff locations, even labor and safety regulations – that might have spurred additional providers to pick up the considerable slack left by the PATH’s destruction.

More prosaically, I wondered if a transportation enterprise zone might have been a way to steer a course through this fall’s squabble between San Francisco-based electronic taxi hailing app Uber and the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. The conflict arose over the app’s end-run around the city’s decades-old separation of taxi fleets, designed to ensure a steady supply for street hails by prohibiting yellow cabs from making pre-arranged pickups. A citywide rule change, spurred by a left coast startup’s complaint, seemed premature. But why not pilot it for rides originating in a limited zone, perhaps one that by luck of the geographical draw (say Lower Manhattan south of City Hall) has suffered from a chronic shortage of empty trolling cabs?

Other potential test beds come to mind – Detroit’s buses are an endangered species. Could more lax rules entice some budding entrepreneurs to fill the gaps? New York’s airport taxi dispatching schemes are an over-regulated mess, with numerous shady operators operating at the margins – why not de-criminalize them and work on improving the flow of vehicles through the terminals instead of punishing drivers and passengers alike with archaic queues?

Where else might this work? The enterprise zone idea originated in the 1970s, when British geographer and urbanist Peter Hall proposed that the model of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan might be re-imported to the United Kingdom to spur investment. He argued that “fairly shameless free enterprise” might be used as an “extremely last-ditch solution… only on a very small scale.” (1) People like Paul Romer (here at NYU’s Urbanization Project) have more recently argued, in the developing world at least, for the opposite – that they are a high priority strategy to be implemented expeditiously and on a massive scale. The result is the so-called “charter city”.

I object to charter cities. In the name of anti-corruption they throw the baby out with the bath water. As Rudin Center visiting scholar Greg Lindsay has argued, they work great on paper but are destined to failure when they get entangled in the messy land struggles of developing nations. But targeted deregulation is something worth trying when nothing else works. And enterprize zones are a viable pragmatic response to stagnation and partisan paralysis. As one analysis conducted for the Minnesota state legislature noted “…enterprise zones have received support from both ends of the political spectrum. Professor Hall was a Fabian Socialist. The Thatcher government, on the other end of the political spectrum, enacted legislation adopting the zone program in Britain. Both the Reagan and Clinton administrations proposed zones with the latter succeeding in enacting them. Congressmen Jack Kemp (a conservative Republican) and Robert Garcia (a liberal Democrat) were coauthors of the initial federal proposals.”(2)

Why not give it a shot? What would you propose for a transportation enterprise zone?

References:

  1. Stuart M. Butler, “Enterprise Zones: Pioneering in the Inner City,” Economic Development Tools (1981): 25-41.
  2. “Enterprise Zones: A Review of the Economic Theory and Empirical Evidence”, Don Hirasuna and Joel Michael (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Minnesota House of Representatives Research Department), January 2005, http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/entzones.pdf.

Policy by the Numbers


NYU Rudin’s Sarah Kaufman has posted on Google’s Policy by the Numbers blog about social media and transportation, and the importance of saying you’re sorry. Check out the full post here, or read this excerpt below:

…a large portion of responsiveness is accountability. In our analysis, we found a major discrepancy in the use of “thanks” and “sorry” in the Twitter feeds of private transportation providers (specifically, American Airlines and JetBlue) versus public agencies. Specifically, the airlines apologized far more than public transportation providers for delays and cancellations: in the two months studied, American Airlines wrote “sorry” and its synonyms 3,949 times; PATH, 62 times; Metro-North, 39 times; NJ Transit, 25 times; and the others, three or fewer times. Similarly, while customer engagement dominated both airlines’ Twitter accounts (85% on average), demonstrating their need to be constantly responsive to and direct with customers, public transportation providers communicated less directly with their customers (34%). These patterns indicate a universal orientation toward customer service throughout the private companies, which must earn and maintain customer loyalty. However, public transportation providers, which often have a monopoly on customers, likely do not feel the same need to focus on them.

The entire social media report is available in Part 1 (Twitter use analysis) and Part 2 (Policy recommendations).