Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Alphabetically Challenged Transportation Systems

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” so goes a well-know song to help children learn the alphabet. But around Boston, there are two examples of transportation systems that, in their current configuration, appear not to have learned their A-B-C’s!

MBTA Green Line
The MBTA Green Line with its four lettered branches (B, C, D, E), is conspicuously missing an A branch. Ah, but there is a reason. Way back about 1967 when the lettering system was invented (previously the routes were numbered on maps and schedules, but not on the vehicles themselves), there was an A branch to Watertown. See the 1967 map below, featuring the A Line!

Logan Airport
Here we find the letter “D” missing. Presently, there are terminals A, B, C and E, but no D. Well, it seems a few years back, Terminal D was merged into Terminal C. Plans were made to change Terminal E to Terminal D, but it would have caused some confusion.

How do you make the change? All the airlines would have to change their ticketing. And all the signs at the airport would need to change overnight, literally! And all the maps of the airport, and on-line maps, and Google maps, and MBTA maps, etc. And what if you fly out thinking you’d fly back into Terminal E, but you’re delayed and now it’s labeled Terminal D, but your friend trying to pick up at Terminal E can’t find it anywhere. So, I guess we’ll have an airport with a missing terminal for now.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Modal Inequity

Are all transportation modes on an even playing field?

Do some modes have an advantage over other?

And does that advantage skew modal use?

Yes, on all 3 counts.

Freight Transportation

In this blog post, let’s consider the options today for freight transportation:
  • Trucks
  • Railroads
  • Air freight
  • Water transport
All four modes operate primarily using private transportation companies. So far, relatively equal.

But now consider the infrastructure for each mode. Here we see the heavy hand of taxpayer government involvement, particularly in 3 of these modes:
  • Trucks: Know of any highways or roads owned by a trucking company? The trucking industry is the beneficiary of one of the greatest highway systems in the world. Sure, they pay all sorts of taxes and fees to use the highways, but when the day is done, all they have to do is drive.
  • Air freight: Know of any airports owned by an airlines? Other than a few minor airfields for private use, the airports are all owned by government entities which are exempt from state and local taxes. And there’s the heavy hand of the Federal government in air traffic control and post 9/11 security. Sure, the airlines pay fees and taxes, but they benefit from the significant contribution of taxpayers.
  • Water transport: The waters of the United States are available to all. While some ports are privately owned/operated, most major ports are publically owned. But, when it comes to maintenance (e.g., navigation dredging) or operations (e.g., harbormasters and the Coast Guard), again we see a significant role for government.

Let’s also consider the indirect taxpayer contributions to these modes:

  • For these 3 modes, the transportation infrastructure is exempt from property taxes.
  • Policing for these modes is at taxpayer expense.
  • The infrastructure owners and managers are exempt from income taxes on their revenues.

These are indirect costs paid for by taxpayers that result in a competitive advantage to these modes.

Let’s contrast this with the privately owned and operated freight railroads:

  • Privately owned infrastructure (rail lines, yards, terminals, support facilities) subject to property taxes. Granted some rail lines near major cities are government-owned, but the majority of the route miles used by freight railroads is still privately owned.
  • Privately funded traffic control to govern rail operations.
  • Private funding for most infrastructure maintenance and improvements. Granted public funding pays for improvements like grade crossing elimination, but these are generally at the intersection of private and public infrastructure.
  • Privately owned businesses subject to income taxes.
  • Privately funded police and security to protect the infrastructure.
  • Freight railroads run on a “cash” basis, using this year’s profits to fund next year’s infrastructure improvements, while avoiding borrowing.

When I take this into consideration, I wonder where are the libertarians, conservatives and Republicans on transportation policy? Clearly, from a conservative or libertarian perspective, freight rail is the mode that aligns with their pro-business, smaller government and anti-tax views. Still, you don’t hear conservatives on talk radio or in campaign speeches railing against the taxpayer’s burden of supporting truckers, airlines and water transport at the detriment of the one mode that’s not looking for a government handout.

But, rail remains the transportation mode that most Americans simply don’t understand. Thus, politicians across the board are happy with the status quo of modal inequity.

Thus is my conclusion: freight rail remains at a competative disadvantage due to the heavy hand of government in the competing modes. What does this mean:

  • More goods travel by truck than might do so in a more equital playing field.
  • Environmenat impacts: Trucks use more fuel and create more emissions per ton mile than rail. Also trucks run on impervious pavement, which results in more rainfall runoff and related water quality issues than exist for rail, which runs on a pervious stone trackbed, allowing for infiltration of rainfall.
  • Impact to public infrastructure: Tons of freight in trucks pounds the life out of bridges and highway pavement, all of which must be maintained and repaired at public expense. Tons of freight running on the rails also takes it toll on bridges and track, but that infrastructure is maintained at no cost to the taxpayer.
  • Traffic impacts: For most commodities, it takes 4 truck to carry what can be loaded on a single railcar. For each railcar used in lieu of trucking, 4 less trucks are competing for the limited capacity of public streets and highways.

Granted, not all freight can be shipped by rail. But there should be a strong public interest in shifting the traffic to rail, to reduce traffic, to reduce taxpayer expenditures for bridge and highway work, and lower the impact on the environment of transporting the nation's goods.


As a side note, in this 1950s vintage film produced by the New York Central Railroad (NYCRR), advance to time increment 7:30 and you can hear its president putting forth the arguments similar to mine against modal inequity. Recall, at that time, Federal and state governments were building the interstate highway system and airports at taxpayer expense while the railroads were trying to compete.

(This promo film is an interesting trip back in time, with different perspectives on industry, as well as some examples which now seem like ancient technology. A link to the 2-part film "
Big Train" is at the blog of the Friends of the High Line. The High Line is a former NYCRR elevated freight line that ran donw the west side of Mahattan. Portions of it have been preerved and converted into a most unique aerial urban "rails-to-trails" liner park.)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Can Air Travel Be Made Safe?

Well, this is easy – the answer is no, air travel cannot be perfectly safe.
Besides the unsustainable physics of defying gravity, no one can guarantee that any flight will be 100% safe from a hijacking or terrorist’s actions.

Some Perspective: Air Travel = the Least Used Transportation Mode in the US!

Here’s something to think about: of all the modes of travel in our great land, air travel is a tiny percentage of the overall modal split.

But when it comes to protecting trav-eling Americans from terrorist at-tacks, which mode is so much the focus of public discussion, media coverage, and gov-ernment spending?
Well, you know which one it is.

Every day, there are 4 people riding on the New York Subway for ever person on a flight over the US. Nationwide, rail passengers (transit, regional, and long distance) far outnumber air passengers.

Add auto passengers, and the percentage of travelers flying becomes microscopic!

Worldwide, cars and trucks are the terrorist's preferred modes of mass murder.

Given all this, all the talk and so much of the funding still goes to the air transport mode. Does it make sense as policy?

Back to the Question at Hand

Whether or not it makes sense to focus the majority of concern on the minority travel mode, the question at hand is what went wrong and what should we do.

With the recent thwarted attempt to blow up a passenger jet, it is clear that our security measures only go so far. So, is this a failure of the agencies that are supposed to protect us from terrorists? And do any of the new measure close the security gap?

Whose Failure Was It?

It’s too soon for a definitive answer, but the following is clear:

  • the perpetrator was known as a potential threat, but was not on the “no fly” list. Still, they were planning to interview him when he arrived in Detroit based on information compiled. Just a little late on putting 2 + 2 together.
  • instead of hiding the materials in a shoe or in a carry-on bag, he hid them in his clothing. Again, a terrorist is one step ahead of us. From what I see, Homeland Security is always adding measures to prevent the last attack (millions have taken off their shoes because of one attempted attack) but seems incapable of getting one step ahead of the terrorists.
  • beginning with 9/11, there have been 6 incidents on individual planes now. The score is 3-3. What was common to the victories over the terrorists? Passengers and/or crew took action and thwarted the terrorists.

Will the New Measures Work?

To me, it seems the new measures are a knee-jerk reaction that is still one step behind the terrorists.

Why remain seated only during the last hour of the flight? Pam Am 103 was blown up over Lockerbie early in the flight. Will they force passengers to remain seated for entire flights?

What good are full-body scans? We know from prison security measures that even strip searches don’t reveal contraband when it’s hidden in body cavities. If the terrorist is going to die anyway, why not hide the bomb inside his body? That way you can fool the scanners, the dogs, and the air sprays.

Technology alone will not protect us, no matter how great it is. Think of this: Osama Bin Laden was a structural engineer; the Christmas day terrorist was an engineer. Americans, beginning with many in Homeland Security, are below average in their understanding of science and technology. The terrorists will win the battle, IF we depend only on technology.

Well, Then, What to Do?

Here my approach to a more effective policy regarding air travel security:

  • Don't make unnecessary enemies with your foriegn policy! If no one hates you, then no one will want to kill you. Good idea in theory, but the world is complex and the influence of the US is worldwide, so it is virtually inevitable that somewhere someone hates the US. Nevertheless, why make unnecessary enemies with your foreign policy!
  • Listen to the experts. No other nation surpasses Israel in its experience dealing with terrorists. Here's what their experts say:

    Lesson 1:
    Technology alone won’t work. (Didn't I just say that?) The terrorists have cleaver engineers and scientists that can figure out how to overcome our newest mousetrap.

    Lesson 2:
    Profiling and interviewing must complement technology. In short, it pays to ask travelers about their itinerary and purpose. And then ask them again. Pick out individuals by behavior, originating country, or by recently visited nations. We need some “Lie to Me” trained observers watching the video feed.

  • Change how we travel. We depend too much on commercial flights that anyone can board. Responsibility is split in a perculiar way between government (security, traffic control, regulations) and the private sector (airlines). Someone has to say it: It's not working!

    What to do? I say don’t criticize the executives in the corporate jets. We need to shift more air travel to private, corporate and charter flights – smaller planes (lower kill count, less damage when crashed as a weapon) and harder for an outsider terrorist to fit in.

  • Proven method: Focus on the only proven method of stopping terrorist in flight: on-board intervention. Have trained and armed marshals on all flights. Mix uniformed marshals with others in plain clothes.