I can’t believe I’m writing a post on Personal Rapid Transit!

Morgantown WV PRT System, as seen from Google Streetview

Morgantown WV PRT System, as seen from Google Streetview

Reading through the history of the personal rapid transit (PRT) on the Verge by Adi Robertson, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities with many familiar projects. Cost overruns, scope creep, politics, government red tape, all conspiring to erode the value of an otherwise promising concept.

First, you can’t write about PRT without acknowledging the inherent geometric flaw of the concept: it can’t scale. Jarrett Walker frequently talks about the fundamental geometry of transit, and succinctly explains the geometric flaw of PRT:

Bottom line:  When “personal rapid transit” succeeds, it succeeds by turning into a conventional fixed route transit system.  The fantasy of “personal” transit is that a vehicle will be there just for our party and take us directly to our destination, but in constrained infrastructure this only works if demand is low.  But PRT was meant to the the primary transport system in a car-free city, so demand would be high.  It was never going to work.

This is also true of the Morgantown, WV PRT system, which makes use of different operating modes. During times of high demand, it operates as a fixed route transit system between the busiest stations; during low demand periods, cars stop at every station, regardless of demand.

Mass transit might be an out of fashion descriptor, but it helps illustrate transit’s scalability. Good transit doesn’t just move large masses of people, it requires mass to succeed. ‘Personal’ transit rejects the masses; it also requires expensive infrastructure to inefficiently move people.

Robertson skirts around the geometric limitations of PRT as a concept, but never appropriately douses the concept with cold water. Any history of PRT must focus on the Morgantown, WV system. Any article about PRT will inevitably draw comparisons to current research on driverless cars. Comparing the two exposes the conceptual flaw:

Self-driving vehicles, he points out, wouldn’t have taken cars off Morgantown’s crowded roads — at least, not in the same volume. As long as they’re intermingled with human-driven cars, they can’t run with the same centralized efficiency. And once you start thinking about the obvious solution — a dedicated lane for self-driving cars — you might start running into the same problems as PRT.

Leaving aside PRT’s conceptual flaws, Robertson’s history of the concept echoes common challenges in the American history of infrastructure projects: shifting government mandates, political interference, procurement regulations, and so on. Some highlights:

Goals for transit: Robertson documents the history of federal funding for PRT, with the Urban Mass Transit Administration providing research grants to explore the concept.

The focus on new technology in transit often meant unnecessarily reinventing the wheel (see BART’s broad gauge track), but also exploring new concepts like PRT. New concepts are sexy, even attracting the direct interests of President Nixon:

His mantra, as Alden puts it, was that if “Kennedy can get a man on the Moon, I can get a man across Manhattan.”

Lack of clarity about the UMTA’s goals for the program help add to the confusion. Is the goal to provide effective transit, or to prove a new technology/concept? Crosstown transit is a practical goal, but it doesn’t require big technological innovations. Landing on the Moon is an impractical goal that wasn’t possible without new technologies – and the moonshot analogy makes it easy to conflate two different goals.

From the start, there’s tension between researching new technologies and practical, proven, cost-effective projects. Many PRT boosters in West Virginia were approaching this a big experiment; the government bureaucrats wanted a functioning system. Once the system proved more conventional than revolutionary, Robertson notes, “the age of experimentation was over.”

Politics: Robertson also shows the competing interests of the various parties involved in funding and executing the Morgantown project. West Virginia University approached PRT as an experiment, while UMTA wanted a more practical proof of concept – something that could be built elsewhere if successful. On top of these turf battles, President Nixon wanted a completed project to include in his re-election campaign materials, pressuring the team to complete things before they were ready.

Procurement and red tape: As WVU championed the PRT project, they looked for federal funds to offset the cost. Then, as now, those dollars had strings attached. UMTA required a NASA JPL redesign of the vehicles; one of the independent engineers took patents to established defense contractor Boeing in order to better compete in project bidding.

Right of way: The single most important element of the Morgantown PRT system is the elevated guideway. Complete grade separation from the traffic at street level and the interference from cars, bikes, and pedestrians not only speeds travel, but made PRT’s automated operation possible (note: this remains true, it should be far easier to automate a subway system than to create a fleet of driverless cars).

Despite the inherent geometric challenges of personal transit as a service, the system nevertheless demonstrated the value of guideways; and also the reasons why we don’t have more of them: local opposition and cost. One PRT booster:

To Kornhauser, the issue is less that the technology was inherently inadequate than that it was expensive and inconvenient. “You didn’t need that much intelligence in the vehicle to be able to do all this stuff,” he says. “The problem was that nobody really wanted to invest the money to build the exclusive guideway. That’s the short and the long of it.”

And Robertson on the local opposition to erecting concrete guideways all over the city:

Even the most time-tested (and desperately needed) public transit systems have trouble securing space and laying track; New York City’s history is littered with unbuilt subway lines that were killed by local protests and a lack of money. PRT guideways had some advantages over trains, like their near-silence, but they would still require cities to build miles of concrete chutes. And unlike a subway line extension, there would be no guarantee that people would accept the new system. Or, as one former transportation commissioner told NPR when asked about personal rapid transit last year: “The last thing you want to do is put up some track all over the place and have it just there.”

Also, unlike a more traditional elevated line (something I’ve defended here previously), the ideal of PRT means offering door to door transit, which in turn requires a guideway of some kind from door to door.

Improving passenger information in WMATA’s 7000 series railcars

As more of WMATA’s new 7000 series railcars enter service, more riders get a chance to experience the new cars in regular service, under the demands of everyday use. The same is true for me – after several chances to ride the new cars in regular service, I have a few observations – particularly relating to passenger information.

I’ve written previously about the big-picture issues for WMATA’s next railcar design: maximizing the usefulness of the existing system means changing railcars to more efficiently move people through the system – and that means more doors, wider doors, open gangways, different seating arrangements, etc.

There’s also room for improving the passenger information systems. The 7000 series include lots of new features, including real-time displays and automated station announcements. Each car has two types of LED displays – a screen that can scroll any kind of text near the end of each car, easily visible from anywhere onboard, and a variable display showing the next stops the train will serve.

7000 series information displays - photo by the author.

7000 series information displays circled in red – photo by the author.

The ‘next stop’ displays above the windows (modeled after the FIND system on several NYC subway car types) contain useful information, but the actual LEDs do not read well at the angles available for most passengers in the car. Even moving closer to the sign doesn’t help much, particularly when compared to the sign at the end of the car:

Comparison of visibility of LED signage in WMATA 7000 series railcars. Photo by the author.

Comparison of visibility of LED signage in WMATA 7000 series railcars. Photo by the author.

None of the next few stops are nearly as visible from this vantage point as “Franc-Springd” at the end of the car. Reading the display more or less requires standing directly in front of it; a challenge compounded by the seating layout, placing 2×2 seating directly under the ‘next stop’ displays.

WMATA 7000 series next stop displays. Photo by the author.

WMATA 7000 series next stop displays. Riders must be in front of the displays to read the LEDs. Photo by the author.

By contrast, New York’s FIND displays are located above center-facing seating. This both puts the displays in a line of sight for people sitting on the opposite side of the railcar, but also takes advantage of the additional standing room in New York’s subway car design.

Completely re-arranging seating layouts or changing the location of these signs is a big change. But there are other opportunities to improve passenger information for users. In addition to the LED signs, each 7000 series car includes four video-capable monitors per car, located adjacent to the doors:

WMATA 7000 series video screen. Photo by the author.

WMATA 7000 series video screen. Photo by the author.

Currently, the screens display a strip map (updated in real time) in the top half of the screen, rudimentary information about the station services (for example, a note that you can transfer to Metrobus – but not any particular route information) in the lower left, and a rotating ad space in the lower right corner (in this photo, listing WMATA’s website).

The above photo illustrates one of the biggest problem with these displays – they do not read well at a distance. Discerning any of the information requires moving closer to the display.

Photo by the author.

Consider another example of a similar technology from a bus in New Zealand, using larger text that can be easily read at a distance; displaying the travel time (in minutes, not number of stops) to the next few stops, as well as the end of the line; and putting less important information in a smaller typeface.

fidlerbusscreentweet

Displays within railcars in Paris use a similar approach (image from Transitized) with large text (easily visible), focusing just on the next two or three stations, along with the estimated travel time to key transfer points as well as the end of the line.

Information about the current stop and next stop should be available for riders to consume instantaneously. Editing the amount of information and using large type reduces the time required for riders to process that information – to say nothing about the need to move through the car to take a closer look.

The nice thing about software is you can change it. WMATA and the District DOT recently installed real-time arrival displays at numerous bus shelters in the city. At first, the displays took too long to cycle and scroll through extraneous information. After some initial testing, the displays now show more useful information to riders at a glance – no need for scrolling or displaying the arrival times for buses scheduled to arrive in the distant future.

New software and a different approach to displaying information on these screens could make them more useful – and potentially help cover for the visibility issues with the above-the-window next stop displays.

Precedents for DC’s population growth

On the heels of the recent announcement from the US Census Bureau about DC’s continued growth, it’s worth asking how exceptional this growth is. Ask around, and you’ll find commentary about DC’s unprecedented building boom – or about how this growth isn’t particularly exceptional. So, which is true?

DC’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development released their economic intelligence dashboard, compiling various economic indicators for the District.  The population data from the US Census Bureau is displayed both in absolute terms, but also showing year over year change:

DC population change

A few observations:

DC’s current trend hasn’t been seen since the 1920s and 30s. While there have been a few years of growth here and there post-WWII, there hasn’t been a decade of sustained population growth like we’ve seen in the past ten years. The longest streak of years with consecutive population growth was over a period of 5-6 years in the early 1960s. In the lifetime of a resident, chances are they haven’t seen a boom like this – only 11% are 65+ years old.

Does that make this growth truly unprecedented? Not in terms of magnitude. Even with that sustained growth, DC’s current boom pales in comparison to the rate of growth seen before WWII. The current growth of ~2% seems paltry compared to 5% or 10% annual growth.

To be fair, those years were the last of greenfield development inside the District; but it’s not a surprise that about half of DC’s housing stock dates back to this era. Those kind of large-scale development sites are few and far between, as the frontier for Washington’s urban area pushes deeper into the suburbs.

DC’s current growth is largely based on the center city and redevelopment of low-density industrial and commercial areas. Without actively planning for additional development and incremental land use change, it’s not clear if that pattern alone can continue to sustain this kind of population growth.

Housing prices vs. land prices – Vancouver, BC

One chart to note in discussions of urban housing affordability, from Vancouver, BC.

vancouver housing prices

The chart is from The Globe and Mail, looking at the changes in housing prices by the type of unit in Greater Vancouver. While condo prices have increased substantially, that increase is nothing compared to the boom in single-family detached house values.

“It’s really the value of the land that is driving prices higher for detached properties and widening that gap,” said Darcy McLeod, president of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

Emphasis is mine. This demonstrates a few things:

  • In high-demand areas, new dense construction can and does improve affordability by making more productive use of expensive land. As the adage goes, a skyscraper is a machine to make the land pay.
  • Defining affordability in big cities solely in terms of single family home prices is misleading. Focusing on those prices also might skew potential policy solutions, which could focus on making housing units more affordable instead of making scarce land more affordable.
  • Given the scarcity of land, it’s hard to imagine a set of policies (barring a regional economic decline) that would ever make single-family detached homes affordable. Most developable land would be a candidate for denser development.
  • Skyrocketing values for single-family detached homes in Vancouver’s core indicates they would be good candidates for more intense development; if such evolution were allowed by zoning.

Renovating Penn Station as an institution, not a building

NYP Cuomo

Beware nostalgia for the old Penn Station. While the railroad station’s current iteration neither functions well nor provides an inspiring space, addressing these problems requires addressing the underlying issues of railroad governance, finance, and operations.

Writing in the New York Times, David Dunlap aims to demolish the myth of Penn Station’s demise as solely an act of civic vandalism. Penn Station’s decline was a symptom of major shifts in transportation finance, travel patterns, and urban development. Railroads were accustomed to their monopoly position and regulated accordingly.

With the rise of direct competitors for both intercity and commuter traffic from airlines and cars (both subsidized by the government), change was inevitable:

In “The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station,” Lorraine B. Diehl said the death knell first sounded in 1944, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill to provide $1.5 billion in federal financing for new highways, including an interstate system.

It sounded again in 1947, when the Pennsy reported an operating loss for the first time in its long existence. One month later, in March, a United Air Lines DC-6 reached La Guardia Airport only 6 hours 47 minutes after it left Los Angeles.

It sounded again in 1949, when the railroads’ share of intercity passenger traffic fell below 50 percent. And again in 1956, when construction of the interstates began in earnest. And again in 1958, when National Airlines inaugurated domestic jet travel with a run between New York and Miami that took just 2 hours 15 minutes.

Intercity travel and freight were the most profitable business lines for railroads. Commuter trains provided some feed for longer distance trains, but were an otherwise marginal business. In reality, the business was in decline well before 1944; Ridership for transit of all forms declined during the Great Depression (along with the rapid expansion of suburbs and proliferation of the automobile), only propped up by travel restrictions during WWII.

Penn Station’s edifice was torn down because the economic model of American railroads, predicated on their monopoly on metropolitan mobility, collapsed. Looking to monetize their assets, developing their lucrative real estate seemed obvious. For Penn Central, it wasn’t enough to save the company. Still, the loss of the building draws most of our attention.

Even today, we tend to focus mostly on Penn Station as a place, rather than on the underlying tunnels, tracks, and organizations that operate them. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his reboot of the longstanding plans (with a throwback to Gov. Pataki and Pres. Bill Clinton) to redevelop Penn Station, complete with a rebranding.

The full presentation slide deck includes lots of flashy renderings of what’s possible, building off of the same basic concepts as before: relocating Amtrak functions to a new facility within the Farley Post Office building; removal of Madison Square Garden’s theater and a complete redevelopment of Penn Station’s concourses below.

There’s a lot to be said in marshaling the political will to get something done. Cuomo’s presentation doesn’t shy away from that ambition. But ambition alone isn’t enough. Given the challenges in executing complex projects, it’s not surprising to see figures like Robert Moses viewed favorably. But are you executing the right projects?

Slide #6 from Gov. Cuomo's presentation, complete with Robert Moses.

Slide #6 from Gov. Cuomo’s presentation, complete with Robert Moses.

Not only does the focus on the building itself miss the real capacity challenges for Penn Station’s infrastructure, it also elides over the very real challenges for operations and governance. Adrian Untermyer reminds us of the key governance challenges to success for any plan:

In 1970, one railroad controlled the transportation hub. After it went bankrupt, New York State took over trains to Long Island, New Jersey took over trains to the Garden State, and the Feds took on the rest…

Even with a reinvented station complex overhead, the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak will still share the mostly same tracks, cramped platforms, and underwater tunnels. It’s unlikely that decades of dysfunction will disappear after the ribbons are cut.

Finding effective governance solutions for both the physical station as well as the underlying railroads that use it is a much bigger challenge. During the monopoly era, before the creation of either the MTA or Amtrak out of the remnants of Penn Central, that kind of vertical integration clarified things. Current governance is muddled.

Lack of integration and coordination among various stakeholders isn’t a new problem. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC project, some advocates celebrated the demise of a flawed project with the hope for a better one. ARC’s primary flaws stemmed from an inability for the key stakeholders to effectively coordinate investments. Instead of one railroad forcing coordination, Penn Station was a battle between three entities (Amtrak, NJ Transit, and NY’s MTA – each with different priorities and different leadership).

The unwillingness to share turf isn’t just a challenge for Penn Station, coordinating between two states and Amtrak; but even within the MTA. East Side Access, connecting the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal is an extraordinarily expensive project, opting for a deep cavern terminal station under Manhattan instead of a potentially cheaper and more useful option that would’ve required better coordination and integration between the MTA’s own commuter railroads. Instead of tackling this issues, the MTA opted for the more expensive solution.

Integration isn’t easy. The MTA’s split personality for regional rail dates back to the differences between the PRR and NY Central railroads. The merged Penn Central couldn’t integrate; it’s not a surprise integration hasn’t happened without some larger outside incentive to do so. The past decade of airline industry consolidation in the US shows how hard this can be, even with incentives.

The real challenge isn’t in finding the right design for a new Penn Station, but in reforming the institutions that operate and govern our transit systems.

672,228 – DC’s growth continues – short-term trend or long-term shift?

Just before the end of the year, the US Census Bureau releases their state-level population estimates. Thanks to DC’s city-state status, we get an early view of the District’s population trends before other major cities. DC’s 2015 estimate clocks in at 672,228 people – an 1.9% increase over 2014.

In 2009 and early 2010, I had a chance to help coordinate the District’s local outreach for the decennial census, emphasizing the importance of getting an accurate count of the city’s population. Back then, we were hoping to see a number above 600,000. Five years later, we’ve blown past that, climbing back to the city’s population in 1977:

DC (and Baltimore) population estimates, hovered over 1977. Screenshot from a Google search for DC Population; data from the US Census Bureau.

DC (and Baltimore) population estimates, hovered over 1977. Screenshot from a Google search for DC Population; data from the US Census Bureau.

(There’s also a great deal of uncertainty to contend with. Census estimates are often revised as better data is collected.)

DC’s press release about the data documents the elements of the recent population growth. Of DC’s increased population, about 1/3 was a natural increase, 1/3 from net new domestic migrants, and 1/3 from new international migrants:

According to the US Census Bureau, the main driver of the increase was domestic and international migration—people moving to the District from other parts of the United States, and from abroad. Between July 2014 and July 2015, in addition to the natural increase (births minus deaths) of 4,375 residents, a total of 8,282 more people moved into the District than moved out. Of these 8,282 net new residents to the city, 3,731 more people moved from other U.S. states than moved out and 4,551 more moved to the District from other countries than the number of residents that left the District for other countries. While net international migration made a greater contribution to the District’s population growth than net domestic migration, net domestic migration has grown four times its previous year total and demonstrates that the District continues to attract residents from other U.S. states.

Back in 2013, DC’s Chief Financial Officer forecast a slowdown in the District’s growth, citing slower economic growth in the region (thanks to decreased Congressional spending) as well as a slowdown in new housing starts. Part of the CFO’s job is to be appropriately conservative in these forecasts, but the Census Bureau’s estimates bucked the CFO’s forecast.

Part of the question is if this growth in DC represents a flash in the pan, or a real long-term shift in migration patterns. Last week saw some hearty twitter debate over this piece by Lyman Stone, questioning the narratives about a major shift away from suburbs and towards more urban locations (examples: here, here and a counter-example here). Stone argues that the data doesn’t support the conclusion of a major shift towards urban living. And given the macro-trends, it’s hard to argue against his broad conclusion.

Consider the analogue of driving, where a sustained period of high gas prices and a weak economy put a serious dent in US vehicle miles traveled, spawning all sorts of theories about how we’ve passed ‘peak car.’ But as soon as oil prices dropped, we’ve seen a massive increase in VMT (never mind the negative consequences of cheap gas). The broad narratives about a paradigm shift against car usage seemed hung up on anecdotes about Millennials using smartphones instead of cars, rather than looking at the broader trends of where people live and work (which hadn’t changed much). Beware reading too much into the data; or missing the outside factor.

However, the smaller-scale evidence is also hard to dismiss. Apartments in DC are sprouting like mushrooms (where they are allowed by zoning), and DC’s population can only increase as fast the city’s housing stock can expand. And even with the District’s sustained growth, rents and home prices continue to rise, indicating demand for urban living greater than the available supply.

Those peak-car arguments might accurately assess our desires to drive less, but the driving data is based on the reality of housing and transportation options available, rather than the options we might wish were available. Likewise, urban migration patterns are based on available housing, not what migrants might wish were available.

 

Parallels between Zoning and Airline Deregulation

Pacific Southwest Airlines post-deregulation ad (1985), showing their expansion beyond California. Image from Airbus777 on flickr.

Pacific Southwest Airlines post-deregulation ad (1985), showing their expansion beyond California. Image from Airbus777 on flickr.

Last week, Ilya Somin published a piece in the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog entitled “the emerging cross-ideological consensus on zoning.” The lede:

In recent years, and especially over the last few months, economists and other public policy experts across the political spectrum have come to realize that zoning rules are a major obstacle to affordable housing and economic opportunity for the poor and lower middle class. By artificially restricting new construction, zoning and other similar land-use restrictions greatly increase the price of housing, and prevents the market from adjusting to increasing demand. This emerging consensus is a good sign, though it may be difficult to translate it into effective policy initiatives.

The issue isn’t zoning per se, but zoning (in practice) as a constraint against matching housing supply with demand. Somin notes that arguments about negative impacts from overly strict zoning come from across the political spectrum, ranging from the kinds of libertarian, free-market scholars you might expect, to Paul Krugman (noted previously here), writing “this is an issue on which you don’t have to be a conservative to believe that we have too much regulation.”

Somin draws the parallel to a past cross-ideological consensus in favor of deregulation: Airlines.

Airline deregulation is a bit of a misnomer. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 only removed government regulation of the airline business model; air travel is still highly regulated, particularly for safety purposes.  Here, the parallel with zoning is useful: zoning is just one set of regulations that govern development in cities. Building codes still apply; just as airlines are still subject to safety regulations.

Before deregulation, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) controlled all of the key elements of the airline business: what routes could be flown (and by which airlines), the schedules of those services, and the fares airlines could charge. The market for air travel was completely controlled by the regulators.

Airlines couldn’t compete based on price, nor could they easily add new routes or serve new markets. With this tremendous constraint on capacity, they had no choice but to compete by offering luxurious service. Perhaps this sounds familiar to anyone who’s recently apartment-shopped in a tight housing market.

However, despite the conceptual similarities, there is one key difference: airline regulation was centralized in the federal government. Reforming things was relatively simple. Zoning is ubiquitous in American cities, but control over zoning is decentralized. There’s no national zoning office, no obvious equivalent of the Civil Aeronautics Board.

Because the Federal government can only regulate interstate commerce, the controls of the CAB did not apply within states. In big states that could support commercial air traffic wholly within their boundaries, there was already a preview of deregulation: Pacific Southwest Airlines (within California) and Southwest (within Texas). However, this intra-state experimentation in airline business models didn’t have the large impact on the industry until taken to scale nationwide. Likewise, because of the regional nature of housing markets, there’s not sure to be a benefit to a single city in a region to be the first mover on looser zoning.

Because of the decentralized nature of legal control over zoning, even an emerging consensus among legislators and policy-makers would have to be much deeper than the kind of consensus that deregulated the airlines. And even with a broad and deep consensus, the sheer number of jurisdictions that would need to take action is enormous.

For that reason, it’s hard to imagine action to change zoning on a scale akin to airline deregulation without some kind of intervention from the courts. Charlie Gardner covers the history of the jurisprudence of single-family-only zones and notes how long it’s been since these issues have been before the court – and how some of these issues have never been directly addressed:

Ninety years after the Euclid decision, land use debates in the United States continue to be distorted by this same dichotomy between “single-family zoning” and “multifamily” areas. Rather than talking about housing in terms of units/acre, or total floor area, or some other similar metric, we tend to use purported building types — whether single-family, duplex, triplex, ADU or other such classification. Yet these classifications are in a sense illusory. Whether a builder puts up three detached homes on a lot, three stacked units in a triplex, or three side-by-side units in rowhouse form really shouldn’t matter a great deal to the regulator.

The court’s confusion on this point may have stemmed in part from the lack of a concrete controversy. The respondent, Ambler Realty, was seeking to use its property for industrial purposes, and had no intention of constructing any residential buildings, much less apartments. The dispute was an abstract one which only pertained to the value of the land. Had the court been confronted with a scenario in which an individual builder sought to construct a two-unit building conforming to height and bulk regulations within a single-family zone, it could not have evaded the question so easily.

Charlie also cites Sonia Hirt’s excellent book Zoned in the USA, which documents America’s unique and ubiquitous single-family only zoning and how much of an outlier these regulations are in the world. In other words, outside of the consensus.

Would a challenge in the courts bring the US in alignment with the kinds of regulations used elsewhere in the world? Would posing the question to the courts embrace decades of regulatory momentum – or look to academics and policymakers for a new emerging consensus?

Zoning restrictions on housing supply catch the White House’s eye

In case you were wondering, the White House grounds are technically unzoned - as is a lot of federal property in DC. Screenshot from the DC online zoning map.

In case you were wondering, the White House grounds are technically unzoned – as is a lot of federal property in DC. Screenshot from the DC online zoning map.

Zoning has been on the national stage in the past few weeks, starting with this paper (just hovering on a link to whitehouse.gov is good to see) based on remarks delivered to the Urban Institute on Nov 20 from Jason Furman, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors:

In today’s remarks, I will focus on how excessive or unnecessary land use or zoning regulations have consequences that go beyond the housing market to impede mobility and thus contribute to rising inequality and declining productivity growth.

For more in-depth commentary, I’d recommend the following:

  • Joe Cortright at City Observatory: “these observations show the pervasive and powerful effects of what we’ve called the nation’s shortage of cities.”
  • Matt Yglesias at Vox: “for younger people, for renters, and for the overall cause of social and geographical mobility it’s a disaster.”
  • Gillian White at the Atlantic: Rent seeking “often means that changing zoning laws or other supply-constricting regulations is in the hands of those who stand to collect on those economic rents in the first place, which can make change slow and difficult, if it happens at all.”
  • Paul Krugman at the New York Times: “Rising demand for urban living by the elite could be met largely by increasing supply. There’s still room to build, even in New York, especially upward.”

I had two immediate reactions to the paper: first, it’s great to see the White House recognize the importance of issues like this. Getting an issue like this on the national stage, linking it to a salient national political issue such as inequality is important. Getting someone like Paul Krugman to devote his NYT column to the subject is great to see (note that Paul Krugman is no stranger to urban economics: he won the Nobel Prize for his work on economic geography and agglomeration economies).

Second, given the scale and importance of the issue, the list of administration actions is underwhelming. Affirmatively working towards fair housing, offering incentives to localities to loosen zoning, and HUD’s program to lessen lending risk for multifamily housing development are all good ideas, but seem small in comparison to the scale of the issue.

It’s hard to say if there’s more that could be done administratively at the Federal level. In the absence of additional legislation, it’s hard to make the case for federal interference in an ostensibly local issue like zoning (no matter the national interest). Perhaps there are additional tools available that build on new rulemaking enabled by existing fair housing laws (perhaps involving litigation in the courts as well) in the same vein as New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine.

Even with the national scope of housing supply constraints and their clear impact on the national economy, Pete Saunders at Corner Side Yard is quick to point out that housing demand is far more varied across the US. This presents yet another issue in raising housing supply as a national issue – it’s not a uniformly national issue. Relaxing the restrictions on housing supply only matter in the face of demand pressure – and many markets in the US don’t have the kind of demand to drive up housing costs in the first place.

USDOT rejects NTSB recommendation to shift WMATA to FRA oversight

US DOT Logo - Image from Wikipedia.

US DOT Logo – Image from Wikipedia.

Well, that was fast. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx rejected the NTSB’s urgent recommendation to shift safety oversight for WMATA to the Federal Railroad Administration. From the Washington Post:

The Transportation Department “does not believe that the NTSB recommendation is either the wisest or fastest way to bring about the necessary safety improvements” at Metro, said Foxx spokeswoman Suzanne Emmerling.

“While we have made similar findings of oversight and management deficiency in recent inspections and audits, we disagree with their recommendation,” she said in an e-mail.

Rather than transfer Metro oversight from one agency to another within the Transportation Department, Foxx has a different plan, Emmerling said. She offered no details of the plan but said, “We are examining all options to make [Metro] safer immediately, and will release a plan very soon.”

Part of the reasoning from Foxx includes the very different characteristics of mainline railroads and rapid transit systems, as well as the different regulatory systems require a different approach. Foxx and the USDOT do not disagree about the first of the NTSB’s conclusions, that WMATA’s safety oversight is inadequate, but he does disagree on the second element: the FRA. The Washington Post cites this statement from the Federal Transit Administration:

“We take all recommendations of the NTSB seriously, but in this case, the NTSB is recommending shifting safety oversight from one agency to another,” the FTA said in a statement. “And these agencies have different authorities and areas of expertise. The NTSB is not wrong to assert that urgent action is needed; we just believe that there is an even more effective and faster way to achieve the safety goals we all share.”

Stay tuned.

UPDATE – Oct 10:

In lieu of the NTSB’s recommendation, Secretary Foxx informed the NTSB that the FTA will take over WMATA Safety Oversight from the Tri-State Oversight Committee effective immediately. This is an unprecedented step for the FTA. You can read Secretary Foxx’s letter here. Part of Foxx’s rationale includes the recognition that “WMATA does not have an understanding or familiarity with FRA regulations,” an implict admission of the wide gulf between regulations appropriate for rapid transit vs. those on the books for mainline railroads.

According to the letter, the FTA will retain direct safety oversight until WMATA’s jurisdictions can create an effective State Safety Oversight agency. This is not a new recommendation; the creation of a new, independent safety oversight agency was proposed following the 2009 Fort Totten crash and mandated by Federal law in 2013. WMATA’s contributing jurisdictions have been slow to act in creating, empowering, and funding this agency, dubbed the Metro Safety Commission.

WMATA, the NTSB, and the FRA: or, what do you mean the Metro doesn’t count as a railroad?

FRA Type II Safety Glass in a WMATA rail car. Photo from nevermindtheend.

FRA Type II Safety Glass in a WMATA rail car. Photo from nevermindtheend.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an urgent recommendation to the US Department of Transportation and the US Congress to re-classify WMATA to be regulated under the authority of the Federal Railroad Administration. The NTSB usually waits until their full report on an incident is complete to make recommendations. If the preliminary conclusions from a report warrant immediate action, they will issue an urgent recommendation – this recommendation falls into the urgent category. The NTSB’s reports are thorough, but usually not released quickly (the full report from WMATA’s June 2009 Fort Totten crash was approved in July 2010). There will likely be more recommendations in the NTSB’s final report.

Looking at the NTSB’s letter, there are two distinct conclusions:

  1. WMATA’s existing safety oversight is inadequate.
  2. The Federal Railroad Administration has the appropriate regulatory tools to address these inadequacies, and therefore should have safety oversight over WMATA.

The letter documents the numerous occassions the NTSB has asked for strengthened safety oversight: “In general, the NTSB investigations of WMATA found that although safety program plans were in place, they were not effectively implemented and overseen.”

The curious part is the specificity of the second recommendation. Instead of suggesting that the existing safety oversight authorities through the Federal Transit Administration be strengthened to include the kinds of tools available to the FRA, the NTSB instead recommended a dramatic shift. The NTSB’s previous investigations specifically recommended that Congress act to increase safety oversight for the Federal Transit Administration:

In the NTSB’s investigation of the June 22, 2009, WMATA accident near the Fort Totten station, we called for increased regulatory oversight of rail transit properties and recommended that the DOT seek the authority to provide safety oversight of rail fixed guideway transportation systems, including the ability to promulgate and enforce safety regulations and minimum requirements governing operations, track and equipment, and signal train control systems.

Unsatisfied with both the pace of progress as well as the likelihood of resolving this conundrum soon, the NTSB is recommending shifting WMATA to the FRA’s jurisdiction as the most expedient option. Neither the legislation to expand safety oversight under the FTA, nor the region’s plans to replace WMATA’s existing safety oversight committee with the Metro Safety Commission would rise to include the regulatory tools available to the FRA:

Based on testimony from representatives of the TOC and the FTA during the NTSB’s June 23, 2015, investigative hearing on the January 12, 2015, WMATA Metrorail accident, the NTSB further concludes that neither the regulatory changes the FTA can make as a result of MAP-21 nor the proposed creation of a Metro Safety Commission will likely resolve the deficiencies identified in safety oversight of WMATA.

The only rapid transit system under FRA regulation is the PATH system connecting New York and New Jersey. Only four rail rapid transit systems that cross state lines – WMATA, the PATCO Speedline between Philadelphia and New Jersey, Metrolink in St. Louis, and PATH.

The NTSB suggests that PATH’s regulation under the FRA is due to the cross-jurisdictional nature of the service, but this doesn’t seem correct. In the NTSB’s accompanying blog post for the letter, they make the case that other transit agencies are regulated under the FRA (even though the use of the plural here is incorrect – there is only PATH):

There is precedent for the FRA oversight of WMATA that we have recommended because there are some transit agencies in this country that are currently under FRA safety oversight. For example, the FRA provides direct oversight over the New York and New Jersey PATH system instead of using state safety oversight agencies.

PATH’s regulatory jurisdiction is an anachronism. Because PATH previously shared a short section of track with the Pennsylvania Railroad, it was also considered a railroad. And while it remains under FRA jurisdiction, it only operates as a rapid transit system under several waivers that grandfather the system from FRA regulations aimed at mainline freight and passenger railroads.

Even with waivers, the impact of this unique set of regulations is substantial:

Before each run, PATH workers must test a train’s air brakes, signals and acceleration, Mike Marino, PATH’s deputy director, said in a telephone interview. When a train gets to its terminus, workers repeat the test.

In addition, every 90 days all of PATH’s rail cars undergo a three-day inspection at a facility in Harrison, New Jersey. Brakes, lights, communications, heating and air conditioning, signals and odometers are all checked, Marino said.

Many of these FRA regulations carry over from past generations of railroading. They’re extraordinarily detrimental to the progress of high-speed rail and passenger rail. This memo gives some regulatory background to the FRA’s role. It specifically discusses light rail transit operations and the potential for shared use of mainline rail tracks (as PATH used to do), and by doing so highlights exactly how many FRA regulations make little sense (by mutual agreement between the FRA and transit operators) for rail transit operations. Numerous waivers of these regulatory requirements would be required from the start.

Like PATH, WMATA is not a mainline railroad. It’s not hard to understand why the NTSB would think that the FRA’s authority to inspect, fine, and shut down non-compliant operators is necessary; but those authorities also come with a rulebook that won’t make much sense to apply to WMATA.

Ultimately, the division between what is under the FRA’s jurisdiction is almost entirely arbitrary:

FRA will presume that an operation is a commuter railroad if there is a statutory determination that Congress considers a particular service to be commuter rail. For example, in the Northeast Rail Service Act of 1981, (3), Congress listed specific commuter authorities. If that 45 U.S.C. 1104 presumption does not apply, and the operation does not meet the description of a system that is presumptively urban rapid transit (see below), FRA will determine whether a system is commuter or urban rapid transit by analyzing all of the system’s pertinent facts. FRA is likely to consider an operation to be a commuter railroad if:

  • The system serves an urban area, its suburbs, and more distant outlying communities in the greater metropolitan area,
  • The system’s primary function is moving passengers back and forth between their places of employment in the city and their homes within the greater metropolitan area, and moving passengers from station to station within the immediate urban area is, at most, an incidental function, and
  • The vast bulk of the system’s trains are operated in the morning and evening peak periods with few trains at other hours.

Examples of commuter railroads include Metra and the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District in the Chicago area; Virginia Railway Express and MARC in the Washington area; and Metro-North, the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit, and the Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) in the New York area.

Despite PATH’s history, it’s regulated by the FRA because Congress said so. The three specific criteria listed don’t particularly apply to PATH, or WMATA, or any other rapid transit system (nor some mainline rail systems that offer a high level of all-day passenger service).

A few things to note:

The NTSB can only make recommendations. The NTSB is not a regulatory agency, they are charged only with investigating safety-related transportation incidents. Their independence is by design – any regulatory agency must consider both costs and benefits to a regulation, while the NTSB’s purpose is to conduct independent investigations and offer their recommendations solely on the basis of improving safety.

This particular recommendation is for the USDOT to seek reclassification of WMATA as a ‘commuter railroad’ via congressional action. Perhaps in considering any action, Congress might consider addressing the other shortcomings in transit safety oversight.

Despite the FRA’s impact on PATH operations, it’s worth considering if additional safety inspections might help improve WMATA’s operational discipline. The FTA’s Safety Management Inspection report (the first such safety report for the FTA, under the new safety role authorized by Congress as a part of MAP-21 but deemed insufficient by the NTSB) identified several shortcomings in WMATA’s procedures and practices. Stronger safety oversight might help address those problems; the question is if the FRA is the right regulatory body and if their rulebook is the right one to use.