Posts by: JM Palacios
Picture by Flickr user DCvision2006.

Do you bike to work yet? Now is a good time to start! Next week is bike to work week, and South Florida Commuter Services is asking you to pledge to bike to work at least one day during the week of March 24-30. We already mentioned it here, but it is worth sharing a few more details. Sign up and you also get entered into a drawing for a $100 Winn-Dixie gift card. If one day is all you can manage, then try it. But we’re more demanding than Commuter Services, so we ask you to bike every single day of bike week. And after that, think about the rest of the year…

I recently started biking to work again, and it’s great! I’ve been doing it for 3 days now and I already feel more fit. It’s amazing how much better a little exercise helps you feel once you get to work in the morning.

The South Florida Commuter Services also has an amusing “Bike-O” contest that enters you to win a bicycle helmet if you do a number of activities on your bicycle. If you’re cycling that much, though, we hope you already have and use a helmet.

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After calling for people to join him in a gas boycott in this column, Daniel Vasquez has been blogging and recording his experience taking the bus or carpooling to work, combined with riding his bike for other errands every day this week. Read the posts and watch the videos on his Consumer Talk blog. It’s good to see someone used to riding in a car every day willing to try alternatives.

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With all the talk about Miami’s streetcar here, one would never have guessed that Fort Lauderdale is also planning one. The Sun-Sentinel today featured a detailed write-up and even a demonstration video on the project. They used the term “light rail” and “streetcar” interchangeably in the article, but the proposed system, called “The Wave”, sounds more like a streetcar. The Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority’s website includes some basic information on this project that has eluded the radar screen for seven years. This PDF flyer offers more detailed info, including maps of the proposed route alternatives that run from NE 6th St. to SE 17th St. The cost is expected to be $150 million for a 2.7 mile project.

Tuesday at noon, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and the city commission will meet in City Hall to discuss funding. The Sun-Sentinel seems to be the only source of information on this meeting. If I didn’t have to work I would be there.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that there is at least one representative from a car dealership on the DDA Board, Gale Butler from AutoNation. Since the DDA is responsible for this project, it looks like the auto dealerships are more inclined to see this project happen than Miami’s streetcar. Let’s do The Wave!

A couple of recent articles have brought attention to freight rail. Palm Beach Post’s Cone Zone posted that CSX now has a carbon calculator on its website to show just how much more environmentally friendly trains are than trucks. The Wall Street Journal also published an article today that mentions the environmental issue, but actually heralds the beginning of a “new era” of railroad expansion.

What? You mean trucks haven’t killed the railroad? Did someone tell Miami yet?

It’s impressive. Basically, rail went through an expansion boom in the late 1800s that ended in the mid 1900s with the construction of the interstate. Now, the interstates are crowded and dangerous, and diesel and other emissions are killing the environment; and the trucking dream is no longer looking so good. With skyrocketing gas prices, railroad companies are able to compete more easily with less fuel efficient trucking companies, and they have been expanding their rail systems in the past few years. In an interactive map, WSJ points to several ongoing improvement and expansion projects that are modernizing the nation’s freight rail system. Railroad companies are actually touting some of the same things that we do about passenger systems: rail expansion is an environmentally friendly alternative to expanding highways.

Perhaps we need to work together with the rail freight companies to persuade voters and politicians that rail is a better way. Meanwhile, we can sit back and see whether rail will compete with the Port of Miami tunnel after it opens.
Photo by Flickr user SP8254.

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A national transportation commission, with the scary sounding name of “National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission,” released a report last week known as Transportation for Tomorrow. This report calls for, among other things, raising the gas tax by 40 cents in five years, creating a new federal bureaucracy, imposing federal regulations on states ability to draw private investment in things like Public-Private Partnerships, and adding a federal transit tax on every transit ticket sold.

Ouch. Let’s look at this thing piece by piece. My first thought on the gas tax was that it wasn’t too bad of an idea. The Federal Highway Trust fund is expected to be short $4.3 billion in 2009, so a higher gas tax would solve the immediate problem. But U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and two other commission members released a dissenting report, where they point out some serious problems with the federal gas tax. First, the federal government already plays too large of a role in transportation funding. Since the feds redistribute the wealth between states, Florida and other states don’t get back what they pay in gas taxes. According to this report, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale Metro area gets only 61 cents for highways for every dollar paid in gas taxes, or 90 cents for the overall transportation network, including transit. It’s bad enough that our area has to pay for highways in Tampa and Orlando through redistribution of the state gas tax. But it’s much worse that we have to pay for transportation improvements in places like Alaska.

The second problem with increasing the gas tax is that it is a flawed system. With more fuel efficient cars and even a few electric cars on the road today, some users are not paying as much as others for the same service. As Secretary Peters pointed out, we need a new alternative. All users should pay for using the road, whether it be at a toll booth or using some kind of GPS mileage system or whatever. But now is a good time for change, as several states are already looking into alternative funding sources. If the federal gas tax is left alone, the shortfall in funding will gradually force states to seek alternatives such as these.

Creating more bureaucracy is a bad thing, especially at the federal level where it will only strengthen the federal control of transportation. Telling states what they can and cannot do with private investment will only hurt projects like I-595 and the Port of Miami Tunnel, and make states even more dependent on federal dollars for transportation improvements.

Taxing transit tickets is sheer lunacy. Thankfully, Peters also comes out against this. Transit agencies set prices to cover as many costs as they can while still attracting the number of riders they need. If the federal government throws a tax on every ticket (the actual commission report says “all trips,” which would apply to free trips like the Miami MetroMover), that will only upset the balance the transit agency has reached between revenue and ridership. They would be forced to sacrifice their ridership or reduce fares and eat the cost of the tax themselves. The tax money would go to the general fund, where it could go towards paying for new highways or someone else’s transit system. So the chances are good that it will take away money from transit agencies. I will personally write to any congressman who dares to introduce such idiocy into a bill and I hope that the thousands of transit riders would also join us in opposing such an idea.

If you want to know who was responsible for this, read their names here. Every commissioner but Mary Peters, Maria Cino, and Rick Geddes supported the report. We’re grateful these three retained enough sanity to dissent.

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Did anyone know there are plans for a people mover between Fort Lauderdale International Airport and Port Everglades? Neither did I until I heard about it from someone in the Office of Modal Development at FDOT a few weeks ago. The project has not made much news until recently, but there is an ongoing PD&E study to implement such a beast, known as Sunport. The plan is to get people from the airport to Port Everglades efficiently, using a system similar to what we see in many airports. Lea+Elliott, an engineering firm well known for designing automated people mover systems, is on board to help with the planning process.

The people mover system would also include an intermodal center where it crosses the FEC tracks, so it could connect to future Tri-Rail service in that corridor and allow passengers to get to area hotels as easily as the port.

Want to know more about Sunport? This Thursday, January 10, the airport and Port Everglades are hosting a public workshop on the project. Show up at 6PM at the Broward County African American Research Library Auditorium.

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The trolley above once ran down the streets of Miami, from 1925 to 1931. Anyone recognize which street? Automakers killed streetcars like this by buying up the transit companies and shutting them down. That was before my time, but it seems sensible to say that the streetcar died because of the automobile. The last thing we would want to see is the same mistake made again. Recent criticism of Miami’s votes to fund the streetcar point to the same phantom raising its ugly head again. Norman Braman, owner of Braman Management and its car dealerships, has come forward with sharp criticism of the plan to fund the port tunnel, Marlins stadium, and streetcar.
One could point to the port tunnel and stadium as Braman’s main beef, but his past actions indicate the possibility that he is chiefly against the streetcar. According to this Miami Herald article, he was behind an ad campaign 8 years ago against the penny sales tax to fund transit. So this is not the first time this car dealership owner has come out against public transit. We cannot pretend to know his motives, but the fact is, we have someone with vested interest in getting more people to buy cars trying to shoot down a system that will reduce people’s dependence on the automobile. One of his dealerships is in downtown Miami, where it could sell cars easily to the new residents that will be pouring into all the condo towers. The Miami Streetcar, when added to the existing transit options, will only make it easier for these residents to live without a car. So it is in Norman’s best interest to sue the county to keep it from getting funded. Even if Miami-Dade County eventually wins the suit, taxpayers will still be stuck with the legal fees and all these projects will likely get delayed while the suit is pending.

Braman also plans to launch an ad campaign against the latest resolution about these projects. Short of launching our own ad campaign, one thing we can do is be prepared to counter the ads whenever friends or family see them. If you want to take it a step further, I’m sure you can suggest some good ideas. If someone wants to keep Miami in the dark ages of car centered design, then we must fight back.

The Miami streetcar seems to be generating plenty of controversy. Before we convince ourselves that it’s good or bad, perhaps we need to look at another streetcar. Seattle’s streetcar, nicknamed “S.L.U.T.” for the South Lake Union Trolley, made its debut Wednesday to large crowds of riders. It also generated its share of controversy (even to the point of sabotage), so lets look at some of the issues.

The Seattle streetcar apparently does not use signal preemption. It has to stop at all traffic lights just like a bus would. This is rather ridiculous, as even Bus Rapid Transit usually calls for signals to change to give priority to the bus. An effective Miami streetcar needs to have signal preemption.

Bicyclists don’t like it and organized a protest. Seattle put the tracks on the right side of the road, precariously close to the bicyclists’ paths. Rails in the road parallel to a bicycles direction of travel are a recipe for disaster. As a bicyclist myself, I share their concerns. Streetcars like Seattle’s carry a lot more people than bicycles, and that should give them at least a slightly higher priority. At the same time, streets need to accommodate as many modes as possible-especially if we ever hope to implement a decent bike sharing program. The needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, transit, and auto all need to be considered carefully in the design of Miami’s streetcar. One alternative that has been used before is to put the rails down the middle of the street.

Seattle’s streetcar is expected to help retail business. That’s probably an accurate expectation, but we’ll have to wait and see the numbers. Most rail transit systems have increased local business, and we could probably expect the same in Miami.

There’s one unique issue that Miami will have to worry about. Every time there is a hurricane, the overhead electric lines will have to be repaired. We all know how often that happens! This makes it worthwhile to consider alternate technologies such as Innorail, which have the added benefit of removing unsightly overhead wires.

It sounds like Seattle’s streetcar was packed the first day, just new like light rail systems. Charlotte’s Lynx light rail is exceeding projections in its first weeks. Surely Miami’s streetcar would do the same.

Many people are going to be traveling this holiday season. The Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald both point out that airports will be crowded and parking scarce for the Thanksgiving travel days. They offer tips like “get a ride,” but they neglect to offer the best suggestion to avoid both the parking issues and the vehicle traffic in the terminal: Tri-Rail. Parking is free at Tri-Rail stations, so put what you would have paid at the airport towards your Tri-Rail ticket and enjoy your gas savings as you zip along towards any of the three major South Florida airports. Or take the Metrorail and transfer to Tri-Rail whichever is closer to your location.

Once you get to the appropriate station, just hop on a connecting bus and head over to the airport. The connections take anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 minutes to get from the train station to the airport terminal, so don’t forget to add in a bit of extra time. If you’re going to FLL or MIA, Tri-Rail provides the free shuttle bus to the airport. If you’re going to Palm Beach International, you’re stuck using Palm Tran routes 40 or 44, but it’s still free with the Tri-Rail ticket.

We all know it would be better if Tri-Rail consistently ran on time and you didn’t have any delays there. And it would be better still if Tri-Rail or even Metrorail went straight to the airport terminal without bus transfers. (We are all patiently awaiting the Miami Intermodal Center!) The last time I took Tri-Rail to the Fort Lauderdale airport, however, I waited much longer for the airplane than I did for the train and shuttle bus. If arriving two hours early for your flight isn’t bad enough, prepare for more delays waiting for your flight to get off the ground. A small delay with Tri-Rail will just cut into the 2 hour+ wait at the airport, so you should have plenty of leeway. It may be annoying to wait for your train or wait for the bus, but remember you’re only getting there to wait some more. Commercial air travel is public transportation. So instead of getting a ride in a car to the airport, why not make your trip public transit all the way?

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Gabriel- I can’t help myself but I have some serious issues with this article which ran in the Sun-Sentinel yesterday listing parking at “South Florida’s” Airports. What’s missing? MIA. Since when is MIA not considered a South Florida airport? Just another instance of the Sun-Sentinel segregating Miami from South Florida (Broward and Palm Beach) a serious nomenclature issue which needs to be resolved and shows the confusion caused by creating so many municipalities within the greater Miami region…

A quick reminder for anyone in Broward county: tonight there is another public meeting/summit to discuss your transit concerns. Head to the South Regional/BCC Library, 7300 Pines Blvd. in Pembroke Pines from 6:30 to 8:30 PM. Sorry about the last minute notice, but go if you have the chance!

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The South Florida International Auto Show kicked off this past Friday. GM unveiled a Hybrid Cadillac Escalade with much fanfare and was showered with awards from Sobre Ruedas (including “Best Vehicle of the Year” for the 2008 Chevy Malibu, which has a hybrid option). We won’t trouble you with too many car details, but the important thing was the chance to have a few words with Troy Clarke, president of GM North America. He outlined the goal of GM’s hybrid strategy: to electrify the car (presumably with plug-in hybrids) in order to allow a distribution network to be put in place before another all-electric vehicle is released. Quite the turnaround from their previous electric car exploits.
Since GM sponsored the winning vehicle of the DARPA Urban Challenge, we asked whether they would incorporate any technology from the race into future cars. Clarke said the point of sponsoring Carnegie Mellon was indeed to look at the technology. He then focused on connected vehicles that communicate with each other for safety and network to the driver’s home to deliver things like music. He steered away from the subject of communicating with infrastructure like the road itself and focused on cars communicating with cars. GM is a car manufacturer, not a road builder, so vehicle infrastructure integration may have to be pushed by someone else.

Clarke also highlighted the current connectivity option that is supposed to become standard in all GM products: On-Star. With features like the Stolen Vehicle Slowdown, the system is already controlling many basic operations of the car. He touted the On-Star system as their current offering of a connected vehicle. Surprisingly, he made no mention of adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, or other active safety features available in luxury GM models. He did remind us that most such technology begins life in luxury cars and filters down to the others once it has been proven good on the market.

It will be a long time before production vehicles achieve full automation. Until that time, On-Star and active safety systems are computerizing things and leaving in the human interaction ingredient. Looking at the theft slowdown feature, it seems like cars would be able to slowdown and stop at red lights if a few more controls were added; but stolen vehicles are only getting stopped at the command of an On-Star operator. That’s nothing more than remote control—the automation is yet to come. We have to have the computer before we have the artificial intelligence, so their progress with On-Star is at least a step in the right direction. Hopefully, just as with the hybrid strategy, they can get the network and the technology in place and then throw in full automation.

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The DARPA Urban Challenge is over, and the winners have been announced. Six out of 11 cars crossed the finish line, completely autonomous without a human driver anywhere. Why do we care about this? Because cars that drive themselves have the potential to be much safer and increase the capacity of existing highways. As long as Will Smith doesn’t switch his car over to manual control, that is.

The cars in the Urban Grand Challenge drove themselves without any changes to the highways or communication between each other. If they could do it without those two, adding them will only make fully automated cars that much closer to reality. Work is underway to develop infrastructure for highways to communicate with cars, in an initiative known as Vehicle Infrastructure Integration, or VII. It’s ostensibly for safety, which is good, but the other improvement is in efficiency, as the space between cars can be decreased and computers can precisely calculate times to let one car maneuver without slowing the others down.

The latest development with VII seems to be the opening of the Connected Vehicle Proving Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Michigan Department of Transportation seems to be making the most progress with VII, developing test beds such as that proving center to be used by the auto manufacturers. These developments could be worth paying attention to.

It is worth mentioning that improving flow on highways through automation will not come close to the capacity of mass transit (like the Metro). We wouldn’t have to worry about red light running, though.

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Red-light running cameras are all the rage at the moment. Local officials want to install them to reduce red-light running, and we applaud them for seeking to make our intersections safer. The question is, though, is that the best way to make them safer?

Studies have shown that rear-end collisions increase when cameras are installed, so the overall accidents increase. It definitely can be argued that rear-end collisions are not as dangerous as T-bone collisions, but they are still collisions. Engineers should be doing everything they can to avoid them. If every alternative has been exhausted and the only choice is to choose one type over another, then the discussion can turn to which type is less dangerous. Until then, we want to see fewer accidents. Period.

The problem here is that politicians are making the decision by looking at things from an economic perspective. Since red light cameras promise to pay for themselves and then some, it’s an easy decision. Cameras come first before other more expensive methods.

What are those expensive methods that help reduce red-light running? For starters, how about retiming signals? Synchronization with the rest of the signal network has the benefit of improving traffic flow in addition to reducing red-light running. Adding a second or two to the yellow has also been shown to reduce collisions. The FHWA offers some more ideas to improve safety here.

There are even newer ideas being put forth to reduce the rate of red-light running. One was presented in the August 2007 issue of the ITE Journal, and the basic premise was to paint the message “Signal Ahead” on the pavement at a precise point before the signal. It would be measured based on the yellow timing and the speed limit so that drivers could know that if the light turned yellow while they were in front of it, they had time to stop safely. If the light turned yellow once they had passed it, they had time to get through the light before it turned red. The article, available without figures here, showed that the rate of red-light running could be reduced 65% with this pavement message.

Painting a pavement message is fairly cheap and retiming signals that need them anyway is also a wise investment. But since cameras actually generate income, they have become the first choice. We can only hope the camera contractors don’t work to reduce the yellow signal length like some have been accused of doing, and we can thank our legislature for keeping these off of state roads until better solutions have been tried. We can also ask for better solutions.

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