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.

Lessons for transit agency funding, finance, and governance – MBTA

It’s been a rough winter for transit in Boston. The agency’s general manager resigned; they’re buried in 90 inches of snow – it’s a natural disaster in slow-motion. All of those problems are piled on top of the MBTA’s structural deficiencies, outlined in this 2009 review of the agency’s finances. The review, led by former John Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro, paints a bleak picture.

Prior to 2000, the MBTA was backward-funding – sending a bill to the state to cover the organization’s annual operating deficit. A reform program sought to make the MBTA fiscally self-sufficient by dedicating a portion of the state’s sales tax revenue to the agency in exchange for a requirement that the MBTA balance their budget every year. This requirement to balance the budget every year would serve as an incentive for the MBTA to control costs and grow revenues.

Often, similar conversations emerge around WMATA, noting Metro’s lack of a dedicated funding source. However, the MBTA case study shows that dedicated funding alone isn’t a silver bullet. There are other elements to the MBTA’s structural deficit beyond funding.

The MBTA blueprint for self-sufficiency was based on several bad assumptions: The plan called for the MBTA to decrease operations costs by 2% a year. In actuality, they increased by an average of 5% per year. Fuel and energy costs account for a large portion of the shortfall as oil prices rose dramatically (and unexpectedly). Sales tax revenues were expected to grow at 3% per year, the actual growth averaged to 1% per year. The net impact, even with rising fare revenue, is a sea of red ink:

Cumulative impacts from the MBTA funding plan, showing large net negative impacts from the baseline.
Cumulative impacts from the MBTA funding plan, showing large net negative impacts from the baseline.

There are two different kinds of error here: one is a failure to account for uncertainty in the forecast. Sales tax revenue is strongly influenced by the larger economy; fuel and energy prices are similarly based on much larger and unpredictable energy markets. The size of the error also increases with time from the original plan. Error in the MBTA’s fuel cost assumptions gets larger with each successive year from FY01 to FY08 – beware the cone of uncertainty.

The second type of error stems from wishful thinking. While it’s nice to plan on reducing operations costs, and there’s value in budgeting accordingly in order to set a goal to do so, it’s not clear that the legislation had a clear idea for how the MBTA would reduce those costs. Another analysis from the MBTA shows binding arbitration between the MBTA and labor unions imposed substantial wage increases with no regard for the MBTA’s operating deficit. In that light, assuming the MBTA’s operating costs would decrease seems like wishful thinking at best.

The D’Alessandro review notes that the MBTA’s headcount is actually down, yet wages are up. The agency showed progress in reducing costs, but they “could not pare staff below the number needed to move hundreds of thousands of riders across hundreds of routes each workday.” Baumol’s Cost Disease in action – increasing costs without a corresponding increase in productivity.

To meet the requirement to balance their annual budget, the MBTA sought to lower their annual debt service payments by refinancing their debt to push the principal into the out years and lower near term payments. Much of this refinancing simply ‘papered over’ the agency’s structural deficit. Again, the faulty assumptions of the financing plan exacerbated that structural deficit.

The MBTA’s debt load is also a major issue, one that dates back well before the Forward Funding plan. As a part of a 1991 consent decree to get approval for Boston’s Big Dig, the courts required a broad array of transit expansion projects as “environmental mitigation.” The decree did not identify any funding for those projects. Now, the MBTA has a massive amount of debt, of which approximately 2/3rds is dedicated to prior obligations before the Forward Funding agreement or towards state-mandated expansion projects.

(It’s worth noting the decision-making priorities involved in the Big Dig – the massive tunnelling project was only approved because the transit mitigation projects, backed by transit advocates as a way to hitch their wagon to omnipresent highway funding – yet those projects were never fully funded and now play a large role in exacerbating the agency’s stability. Imagine a project that simply removed the Central Artery and ‘replaced’ it with the long-imagined North/South rail link instead; or where the response to the Big Dig proposal was focused on re-defining the project itself rather than just tacking on ‘mitigation’ transit expansion.)

D’Alessandro’s conclusion is stark: “A private sector firm faced with this mountain of red ink would likely fold or seek bankruptcy.”

Yet, at the same time, the MBTA is “too big to fail.” Transit provides a critical service for any large city’s economy. Given the subsidized nature of public transit in the US, any reform must involve the public sector.

Airlines provide an interesting point of comparison: While US airlines operate for-profit businesses, the nature of air transport is deeply intertwined with the public sector. However, US Airlines are private, for profit corporations. Unlike the MBTA, they can seek legal protections to restructure their business through bankruptcy – and every major airline has done precisely that over the last decade. Airlines used bankruptcy to reduce operations costs from long-term labor agreements. German transit agencies have achieved fiscal stability using similar tools.

Unfortunately, the simplified narrative in the wake of the T’s failure to function normally in the face of Boston’s record snowfall has been to set up a false dichotomy between transit system expansion and system maintenance. In spite of the Big Dig deal, the challenge isn’t between expansion vs. maintenance, but between the political governance and funding mechanisms and the technical requirements to operate and maintain the system.

This political challenge isn’t limited to transit. Highway spending is overwhelmingly focused on expanding the system, at the expense of maintaining the system we already have. Angie Schmidt at Streetsblog put it bluntly: More money for transportation won’t matter if we don’t change how that money is spent.

Hyperloop: lots of hype for something that doesn’t yet exist


The last few days have seen lots of pixels spent on Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept – and I couldn’t resist chiming in. It’s a fascinating idea, but far from an actionable one.  Musk seems to have put a lot of thought into dealing with some of the technical hurdles of previous vac-train ideas, but rather than put these forward in the marketplace of ideas, he has taken to bashing California’s high-speed rail project instead.

Musk’s supporters take his endorsement seriously, with many openly hoping that the Hyperloop will kill off high speed rail, even though high speed rail is a proven technology operating around the world, while the Hyperloop exists nowhere but as a sketch on the back of a cocktail napkin. It’s a testament to the power of an idea, but it also shows how easily we can fall for bad ones.

A few base criticisms of the idea come to mind: the Hyperloop is not necessarily a superior technology for the problem it seeks to solve (travel between SF and LA); technology does not change the basic geometry of a transport system (and it must respect the basic tolerances of the human body); a fancy new technology is not necessary for innovation and improvement; and every strain of common sense indicates that the cost projections for this thing are pulled out of thin air (where else would they be pulled from?)

Solving SF to LA: Musk’s proposal does not actually serve either Los Angeles or San Francisco. The ‘last mile’ problem in any urban transportation system can be really challenging and really expensive. Musk simply avoids the problem by terminating in Sylmar and the East Bay. The hyperloop’s faster speed is irrelevant to the real question: travel time. Maximum speed alone tells you little about travel time, just as the Acela Express (as limited as it is) easily takes the majority of air/rail traffic between DC and New York, despite slower vehicles and longer trip times – the benefits of easy boarding (Penn Station be damned), downtown station locations, and relatively low security requirements make for a better overall value. 

Musk didn’t just pitch the hyperloop as a way to make evacuated tube trains feasible, he pitched it as a way to make SF-LA travel work better than the CHSRA can. His pitch is part technical concept and part policy proposal, and the policy elements fall short.

Technology does not change geometry: This is true for driverless cars and for hyperloops. The type of technology used doesn’t change the technology’s purpose – moving people from place to place. Since the hyperloop is essentially a transit service, it still must obey the same geometric rules as all other modes, the ones that govern capacity, headway, throughput, etc. Musk ups the speed for his concept, but his own proposals show a very low overall capacity – and even those estimates seem optimistic given his assumptions on safety margins and safe distances between pods. At GGW, Matt Johnson compares capacities of different modes of transport:

According to Musk, pods would depart LA and San Francisco every 30 seconds during peak periods. Each pod can carry 28 passengers. That means that under the maximum throughput, the Hyperloop is capable of carrying 3,360 passengers each hour in each direction.

For context, a freeway lane can carry 2,000 cars per hour. A subway running at 3 minute headways (like the WMATA Red Line) can carry 36,000 passengers per hour. The California High Speed Rail, which this project is supposed to replace, will have a capacity of 12,000 passengers per hour.

Technology also does not magically change the tolerances of the human body (save for science fiction inventions like inertial dampers). Musk is selling speed, and his assumptions on acceleration are more akin to a roller coaster than rapid transit. From The Verge:

According to Powell, that’s a problem: “In all our tests, we found people started to feel nauseous when you went above 0.2 lateral Gs.” The closest comparison would be roller coasters, which usually top out around half a G — but the Hyperloop wouldn’t just peak at 0.5; it would stay there for the duration of the curve. The result would be well short of blackout, which most studies peg around 4.7 lateral Gs, but it would make the Hyperloop challenging for the faint of stomach.

Others have noted the lack of bathrooms in the Hyperloop pods. It would seem that the roller-coaster analogy is apt, as roller-coaster operators don’t want you leaving your seat in the middle of the ride, either. It’s not safe.

Other opportunities for innovation: Much of the praise for the Hyperloop seems to be based solely because it’s something new and exciting (and people take Musk’s cost claims at face value); part of it also seems to be a lack of faith in high speed rail. The desire for something new ignores the reality that most innovation is incremental; it also ignores the power of transportation networks and the value of connecting to something that already exists.

Matt Yglesias looks at alternative transportation improvements that would seek to solve the same problem (decreasing LA-SF travel time) by tackling some low-hanging fruit, rather than inventing new technology. Yet, people don’t want boring improvements in processes. Molly Wood at CNet just wants to believe in technology, noting that practicality is for cynics:

I refuse to keep accepting that until our cynically imagined dystopian future comes to pass. As justone alternative to the essentially already-failed high speed rail project, we now have a detailed plan for a high-speed transit system that could cost as little as $6 billion to build and, by the way, would be solar powered and infinitely more environmentally friendly than the dirty, diesel-powered rail project. It seems obvious that Musk is unveiling this plan ahead of the ground-breaking for the rail project in what is hopefully a successful attempt to stop the monster from ever being born. So get over the sunk cost fallacyof the California “high speed rail” and move on to a better solution.

All we citizens of California, and the Internet, and the world, have to do is believe that this technology is possible. Then those of us with the lucky happenstance of representative government should use it like it’s supposed to be used, and demand better. Instead we tend to give up and talk about great ideas that will never happen — or worse, tear those ideas down as silly, unrealistic, or impossible.

Leaving aside Wood’s unquestioning acceptance of Musk’s cost estimates f0r a technology that doesn’t exist (even in prototype!), and the obvious mis-information about HSR’s power source, this kind of technological evangelism is fine for entrepreneurs (as Alon Levy’s post title argues), but it makes for bad public policy. If Wood had the same faith in HSR, and was willing to look over HSR’s faults with the same starry-eyed gaze, then HSR wouldn’t have the PR headaches that it does.

Slate’s Will Oremus is similarly infatuated with the concept, but at least he realizes the steps required for the Hyperloop to prove itself worthy:

Wise or not, California is unlikely to drop its plans just because one rich guy has a light bulb over his head. On the other hand, if Musk does build a demonstration line, and it’s faster, cheaper, more energy-efficient, and requires seizing less private property than laying down train tracks, a change of plans might start to sound pretty appealing. That’s a lot of ifs—but so is every big idea, in the beginning.

Indeed, that is quite a few ‘ifs.

The odd thing is, despite all of the references to Musk as a master innovator, it’s worth noting that all of Musk’s companies and products, as daring and inventive as they are, still are just incremental improvements over existing technology. Tesla did not invent the electric car and certianly did not build the massive network of auto-centric transport. SpaceX did not invent rockets. SolarCity did not invent solar power. Each company offer incremental (though meaningful) improvements on existing concepts and products.

At the risk of stating the obvious: Hyperloop is not an incremental improvement for an existing technology. Existing technologies have the benefit of linking into existing networks. Tesla’s cars can use regular roads and charge through regular outlets. High speed rail can use existing tracks and rights of way to get into city centers.

This is not a serious cost estimate: Musk is not just proposing a new technology, he is also offering an explicit critique of high speed rail. Plenty of observers have critiqued the CHSRA’s track record to date; comparisons to HSR best practices in planning, construction, and operation from around the world are not favorable. Nevertheless, this does not make the Hyperloop’s assumptions any more realistic. And, if the state were to buy the hype, the Hyperloop would likely see even wilder cost overruns – putting it on the same trajectory as Seattle’s failed monorail transit system.

Alon Levy takes a closer look at some of Musk’s cost estimates, and finds that most don’t even pass the smell test:

This alone suggests that the real cost of constructing civil infrastructure for Hyperloop is ten times as high as advertised, to say nothing of the Bay crossing. So it’s the same cost as standard HSR. It’s supposedly faster, but since it doesn’t go all the way to Downtown Los Angeles it doesn’t actually provide faster door-to-door trip times.

At a broader level, consider what Musk is claiming: that a system of precisely aligned and machined de-pressurized tubes could be built for a fraction of the cost of infrastructure with a similar footprint. Musk is proposing that the pods would clear the tube walls by fractions of an inch, compared to much larger machined tolerances for lower-speed modes of travel:

The biggest question mark is the tube itself, which has emerged as the most genuinely unprecedented part of the plan. By enclosing the track, the Hyperloop is able to sidestep worries about air friction and noise that usually limit the speed of trains to under 400mph, but the tube also presents a unique set of challenges. James Powell PhD, co-inventor of the maglev train, is particularly concerned about the smoothness of the inside of the tube. As Powell points out, the current design allows for just three hundredths of an inch between the tube wall and the skis encircling the pod. “Getting it that smooth won’t be easy,” says Powell, and might require a more expensive production process than the plans envision.

The small gap is crucial to the system’s overall design, allowing for a stable air cushion that keeps the pod hovering frictionlessly in the tube. But the small gap also requires great precision in tube construction. Powell thinks that a single bump, just three-quarters of a millimeter high, would trigger catastrophic damages, possibly even ripping the ski from the pod at top speed. Keeping the tubes straight can be done, but it won’t be cheap. “It’s going to be an arduous process,” says Vinod Badani, an engineering consultant at E2 Consulting. “Quality control and measurement have to be very accurate.” Musk’s plans envision a specially designed device to smooth out the inside of the tube, but it presents a serious engineering problem for anyone thinking of building a prototype.

Musk proposed using I-5’s right of way as a way to keep land costs down. However, I-5 has trucks. If one semi truck jack-knifes on the road, ramming into one of Musk’s cheaply-built pylons, how will his tube maintain that level of precision required for safe operation? Musk asserts his system is safer than HSR during earthquakes (nevermind the safe operation of Japanese HSR during major earthquakes) without any evidence, yet the basic physics of what he is proposing demand a high level of precision on a massive scale.

The real question should be if it’s even possible, not asserting that it will be cheap.

In the New Yorker, Tad Friend takes note of Musk’s propensity for exaggeration:

The bad news is that there’s no conceivable way that the system would cost just six billion dollars, or that one-way tickets would cost twenty dollars. Overpromise disease is endemic to Silicon Valley, but Musk has an aggravated case. When I wrote a Profile of him, in 2009, he told me that a third-generation Tesla would be selling for less than thirty thousand dollars in 2014, the same year that he expected SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to begin ferrying tourists around the moon. Well, no and hell no. More worrisomely, he promised that you could start driving the Model S in western California “at breakfast and be halfway across the country by dinnertime.” Musk is a lot better at math than I am, but he eventually acknowledged that by “dinnertime” he really meant “the following morning’s breakfast”—if, again, you didn’t stop to go to the bathroom.

This isn’t to argue that exploring these ideas shouldn’t happen. It is, however, an argument that a concept like the hyperloop shouldn’t be used to bring down high speed rail. If the Hyperloop is nothing more than a device to force better results out of the CHSRA, that would be a welcome result. However, if that is to happen, it won’t be because the Hyperloop is a realistic (or event a plausible) alternative.

Two weeks ago, Eric Jaffe editorialized that we should stop obsessing about the “next great thing” in urban transportation. There’s thinking big, and then there is fantasy. It’s worth noting that a project like California High Speed Rail is plenty ambitious – it’s certainly thinking ‘big.’ It’s also achievable, but is facing real-world constraints (economic, political, physical, institutional, procedural, regulatory, etc) and is in need of some practical planning.

The Hyperloop may seem like an attractive end-run around these constraints, but such benefits are illusory. The real benefit is in reforming the institutions to reduce the constraints.

Growing cargo traffic at Dulles – the challenges of realizing the value of an aerotropolis

Dulles International Airport - from Google Maps
Dulles International Airport – from Google Maps

In DC’s western suburbs, two related battles concerning growth are at the forefront. One is a plan for a new highway, the other is the desire to expand air cargo operations at Dulles International Airport. Both concepts seem to be hitched to one another, but they ought to be considered separately on their own merits.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has expressed a desire to grow cargo traffic at Dulles. At the same time, sprawl interests are pushing the bi-county parkway, pitching the road as a benefit to Dulles. Jonathan O’Connell’s profile of several road advocates in the Washington Post shows how much of the advocacy is another verse of the same song.

Looking to untie the road interests and airport interests David Alpert asks why MWAA is pushing all things Dulles in a Washington Post op-ed, when passengers seem more interested in DCA:

Virginia and airport officials seem to behave as though their mission is to make more stuff happen at Dulles, whether that stuff wants to happen there or not.

A quick glance through an MWAA powerpoint from their strategic planning exercises explains the logic of focusing growth on Dulles. DCA is constrained (physically, legally) with room to grow only on the margins. DCA can never be the full-service International airport that IAD can; and MWAA fears maximizing value at DCA would hurt IAD’s currently fragile position – the FAA’s recently approved slot-swap gave JetBlue a foothold at DCA, with a corresponding reduction in flights at IAD (slide 16).

MWAA revenues 2012

Dulles relies on air traffic for approximately 75% of its revenues. While Dulles has tremendous capacity to grow, realizing that potential requires additional capital investment, such as Dulles’ Aerotrain and other elements of the recent D2 program. Now, Dulles finds itself trapped with a higher cost per enplanement than other airports due to the capital program, and a revenue stream overly reliant on aviation revenues.

Increased air cargo has the potential to help on both counts. More freight means more flights, boosting aviation revenues without requiring new airport facility investments. More freight also means increased demand for revenue-generating uses of airport land that currently lie fallow.

The catch is this: it’s not easy creating a freight business out of nothing. Dulles does not have the central location like Memphis or Louisville, the central US hubs for FedEx and UPS, respectively. The area does not have a huge manufacturing base, either – air cargo shipments originating or terminating in IAD would need to focus on consumer goods. Likewise, the airport does not currently have a major cargo presence that would lure the manufacturing that does exist in the area to cluster around the airport. Chickens and eggs are both missing.

There are opportunities, however. Dulles does have huge tracts of land, the ability for 24 hour operations, and lots of airfield capacity. Both FedEx and UPS operate regional hubs in the US to avoid the need to route all cargo through their core hubs in Memphis and Louisville. On the east coast, FedEx operates out of Newark while UPS operates their east coast hub in Philadelphia. Linda Loyd profiled the UPS operation in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Starting at 7 a.m. each day, UPS planes arrive in Philadelphia from Cologne, which is UPS’s European hub, and from England and Paris. International flights from Louisville, Ky., stop in Philadelphia heading to Europe, and planes leave Europe, stopping in Philadelphia, bound for Louisville, which is UPS’s air headquarters. Each afternoon, flights arrive here loaded with packages from Dallas and Southern California.

UPS is the world’s largest transportation company, and the Philadelphia facility – second in size only to Louisville – handles 70,000 parcels and documents per hour. That number reaches 95,000 at peak times like Christmas, with parcels headed to and from 18 states, as far west as California.

Just before midnight, as passenger terminals and commercial flights are winding down, operations are heating up at UPS. Package sorting largely happens at night. More than 1,000 UPS workers report at 11 p.m. for the “night sort,” which continues until about 3 a.m., or until all packages are unloaded and sorted and put back into trucks, trailers, and planes to leave again.

Cargo moves around the world in multiple stops, not one long journey.

At each stop, planes and trucks are emptied, and packages are sorted and scanned, and reloaded on other flights. The network tracks packages on each leg of the trip, in order to maximize the weight and loads, through constant sorting and resorting. While a lot of the work is automated, it requires an army of people, along with bar-code scanners and a city of conveyor belts that crisscross like freeways.

Philadelphia’s UPS facility might be ripe for poaching: As Loyd’s article notes, the 212 acre site lies in the way of a proposed runway expansion at PHL. The airport’s proffered alternative location is smaller, closer to residential neighbors, and without room for expansion. Unsurprisingly, UPS does not favor the expansion (nor does PHL’s anchor tenant, US Air – fearing the increased fees that currently hurt an airport like Dulles).

In the case that UPS is looking for alternative airports, MWAA Board Minutes show the courtship in progress. Dulles can offer an east-coast location with room to grow and unconstrained flight operations, and hooking an anchor cargo integrator like UPS would be attractive to other air cargo operators, as well as businesses with lots of air cargo shipments.

While increased cargo is one option to grow non-aviation revenues through land development, it is not the only option. Increasing non-aviation revenues is important to provide a counter-cyclical revenue source for airport operations. It also represents a change in MWAA’s practices – while most airports have been increasing their share of non-aeronautical revenues, MWAA has been going in the opposite direction (page 28).

The options under immediate consideration, however, sound awfully uninspiring (if functional): more parking, another gas station, and an additional hotel (page 29). On the western side of the airport, near the proposed highway expansion, MWAA envisions industrial development that can benefit from direct access to the airport’s ramp.

MWAA supports road expansion near the airport because MWAA is not in a position to argue against improvements to airport access. However, that doesn’t mean the shape of development on and around the airport can’t move in a more sustainable direction. There are a great deal of opportunities to green the airport, but perhaps the most promising would be re-thinking the shape of airport development with the arrival of Metro into something akin to otherairport city’ concepts around the world – capitalizing on the real estate value Metro will bring, the on-airport location, and the virtuous cycle of improving IAD’s airport experience – certainly more ambitious than a second convenience store.

MWAA forecasts slide

Part of the challenge is in counting on growth – the accuracy record of forecast traffic doesn’t exactly build confidence, but the future for more urban development, walkable places, and transit-oriented development in the region is promising. The challenge will be in taking the city approach to the airport; thinking beyond just infrastructure, cargo, and agglomeration economies. Airport terminals are already, by necessity, pedestrian-oriented environments between drop-off and the gate. Extending that mindset beyond the terminal is the next step.

Miscellaneous thoughts on Hurricane Sandy

A few items to share in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Hurricane Sandy from NASA GOES-13

Prediction: As the son of a meteorologist, I feel obligated to note that this storm was very well forecast.  Given a broader critique of science on a number of fronts, the accuracy of the forecast and the warning it provided is worth noting.  For other examples of pushback against reason, see: Frontline on climate change; the various reactions against Nate Silver; Michael Gerson’s trouble understanding statistics, etc. (I thought Ta Nehisi Coates has written well in response to this assault on logic, reason, and objectivity). Nate Silver devoted a chapter to meteorology in his recent book, much of which is discussed in this teaser in the New York Times entitled “The weatherman is not a moron.”

Accurate prediction for storms like this gives lots of time to prepare. While I was attending the NACTO conference in New York, I had a chance to visit NYC DOT’s traffic management center in Long Island City on Friday afternoon before Sandy hit; city officials were preparing for the storm well in advance at the time, thanks to a good forecast.

Resiliency: Prediction can help you prepare on a shorter timescale, but ensuring our cities are resilient to these kinds of events requires a whole host of other adaptations. Some ideas:

Financing Improvements: Matt Yglesias makes a point made before in the aftermath of DC’s derecho storm: burying power lines is expensive, and funding that cost is a lot easier to do in a densely developed community. The specific improvement need not be burying power lines, as the threats in some areas will be different (as Mayor Bloomberg noted, just pulling emergency generators out of basements prone to flooding is a good start – along with other “granular improvements”). \

Recovery: Leaving aside the opportunities for hardening vulnerable infrastructure like New York’s subway, the response and rather fast recovery of New York’s subway system (given the extent of flooding) is remarkable.  New York Magazine tells the story:

The first thing the MTA did right was informed by a colossal mistake. After the 2010 blizzard, which embarrassed the mayor and took out the subway for days, the MTA was too slow bringing its trains and equipment somewhere safe and dry. “We kind of dropped the ball and we learned from that,” said Tom Prendergast, president of New York City Transit, the part of the MTA that handles city subways and buses. This time the MTA shut everything down on Sunday evening, the day before the storm arrived. Waiting longer would have wasted time and man power needed for the cleanup afterwards.
In the future, Prendergast says, the system will have to rethink the way it designs its infrastructure. At the very least, ventilation ducts and gratings should be moved higher up or built so that they can be covered and made water-tight along with station entrances.
Implications for DC: The Washington Post looks at the worst case scenario for storm surge in DC.  In 2003, Hurricane Isabel wasn’t far from the worst case in terms of storm track, pushing water up the Potomac and into DC’s low-lying areas.


Green vs. gray – two sides of the same coin

DC Water's Blue Plains waste water treatment facility. CC image from erin m.

While perusing Twitter (hat tip to Jeff Wood), I came across this Guardian article about urban uses of natural processes to do the dirty work of urban pollution mitigation.  The piece discusses all types of green infrastructure and the natural processes they emulate, such as bio-filtration. I’ve taken note of local examples before, but the phrasing of their summary of the concept caught my eye:

Gray infrastructure is the system of pipes and ditches that channel storm water. Green infrastructure is the harnessing of the natural processes of trees and other vegetation — so-called ecosystem services — to carry out the functions of the built systems. Green infrastructure often intercepts the water before it can run into streets and become polluted and stores the water for gradual release through percolation or evapotranspiration. Trees also clean dirty water through natural filtering functions.

While drawing the contrast between green and gray infrastructures, the idea of “harnessing… natural processes” sparked a memory of this extensive summary from Mammoth of DC’s Blue Plains wastewater treatment facility – gray infrastructure on a massive scale.  In describing what goes on at Blue Plains, they note “the process of waste water treatment mimics — in an accelerated fashion — the natural cleaning processes of waterbodies.” The accompanying footnote:

Scott Huler explains this in his fascinating On the Grid, quoting a Raleigh wastewater treatment superintendent T.J. Lynch:

“All we’re doing is what a river would do… what happens in our plant  is the exact same thing that happens in a stream. That’s exactly where the process came from. We’ve just concentrated it. It might take the river a couple hundred miles to accomplish what we’d do in a couple days.”

Figuring out where any given piece of green infrastructure might fall in the spectrum from a naturally occurring ecology to a engineered technology is an interesting mental exercise. Rhetoric about sustainability aside, the same physical process is occurring using mostly similar mechanisms.

Links: end of the pipe

Time to dump some tabs that I’ve accumulated in the browser over the past few weeks:

You can never go down the drain:

This week’s City Paper cover story is a short piece on DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility (arrange your own tour here!).  The accompanying photographs show the infrastructural landscape in all of its glory.

For an incredibly in-depth tour of the facility (without the smell), check out this mammoth post from September, showing the entire process in excruciating detail.  Mammoth notes the fundamental process of cleaning the water mimics the existing natural processes that rivers use, albeit concentrated and accelerated.

The two basic tracks are to separate liquids and solids, while making the liquids more liquid and the solids more solid at each step in the process.  The end result of one process is water back into the Potomac (cleaner than the river it enters); and the other result is ‘concentrated biosolid’, also known as the concentrated crap of Washington, DC.

The biosolid is sold as fertilizer for agricultural applications for non-human consumption. Waste nothing.  For an in-depth tour of how such a facility works, I can’t recommend the mammoth piece enough.

On the water delivery side (as opposed to the sewage disposal side), Atlantic Cities has a piece on why your water bill must go up to help finance the replacement of the infrastructure we’ve taken for granted. Both the delivery and disposal networks are in need of investment.

JD Land has a set of photos from the new Yards Park-Diamond Teague bridge, including one of the historic pump house that sends sewage from the District south to Blue Plains. Another shot shows the bridge’s informational signage from DC Water, documenting the agency’s own long-term control plan for management of DC’s combined sewer system.

It’s all about jobs:

The remarkable takeaway from the Blue Plains phototours is the role of natural processes in the system (minimizing pumping in favor of gravity, for example) to maximize efficiency via infrastructure.  Thus, it was curious to see the Washington Post writing about the expansion data centers in old manufacturing towns to serve as the physical location of cloud computing servers, but noting that such infrastructure doesn’t provide many long term jobs.

Granted, jobs are the narrative of the Great Recession, but using the data center seems like an odd place to focus.  Using a similar infrastructure investment like Blue Plains as an example, a better comparison would be to the economic activity enabled by clean water and sewage disposal – just as the data centers should look at the indirect effects of internet connectivity and activity, not direct employment via the infrastructure that sustains the internet.

Mammoth has a few thoughts on IT infrastructure, aesthetics, and the return of light industry to mixed use urban environments.

Here comes the sun:

Some solar powered notes – the cost of PV cells is coming down.  Some thoughts on the implications for the climate (Joe Romm), for the economy (Paul Krugman) and for DC (Lydia DePillis).

Is transportation too expensive?

David Levinson proffers a few hypotheses as to why transportation investments are so expensive.  Many are interesting, (thin markets and insufficient economies of scale trigger thoughts of rolling stock protectionism; project scoping and organizational structure are similarly compelling) though I’d take issue with a few of them.

One is #5, discussing incorrect scope.  David mentions big buses serving few passengers, but as Jarret Walker notes, the real cost is in operations; the real cost is the driver.

The idea of standards run amok is intriguing, but I think a more relevant point is asking if standards make sense.

Nitpicks aside, the idea is a great one – this is a conversation that needs to happen.

The Aerotropolis, continued

In the comments from yesterday’s post on Norman Foster’s aerotropolis (and the idea of the aerotropolis in general), author Greg Lindsay dropped a note in the comments asking for me to expand my own thoughts on the idea and the book.  So, here goes.

Lindsay did note one specific comment from Aaron Renn’s review: “this is one of the best overviews of globalization I’ve read.”  I can’t disagree, and would certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in cities, infrastructure, globalization, economics, or any number of related fields. The challenge is to separate the various threads that weave through the book.  There’s the descriptive element, providing the overview of today’s airborne flows of commerce;  there’s the proscriptive element, taking Kasarda’s ideas and baking them into tangible proposals; and there’s the analytical element that assesses the implications of these trends and ideas. Most of the negative reactions to the book I’ve read seem to conflate these elements together instead of teasing them apart – and for whatever flaws the aerotropolis-as-business-plan might have, the descriptive and analytic elements of the book are invaluable.

The book’s descriptive elements are fantastic. BLDGBLOG’s interview with Lindsay highlights one example of the book’s explanatory power, showing how these systems work in our day to day lives:  “One of the things I tried to touch on in the book is that even actions we think of as primarily virtual lead to the creation of gigantic physical systems and superstructures without us even knowing it.” The descriptions of the logistics operations in Memphis and Louisville for FedEx and UPS are fascinating.

UPS WorldPort, from Bing maps

The accompanying narrative of aggolmerations of air freight reliant businesses near those hubs is equally fascinating. I write this having just placed an order from Amazon that I need delivered tomorrow, knowing the intricate dance that order will trigger. Knowing the physical processes behind a shoe order with Zappos is revealing, particularly given the level of automation and coordination required for fast delivery. The ‘cool chain’ explanation is equally intriguing.  Simply from a standpoint of understanding how things work, the book does an excellent job of pulling back the curtain.

Beyond just the work behind the consumer’s experience, Lindsay and Kasarda do a great job of explaining the clustering and agglomeration of various industries around these nodes of connectivity – the physical mark they leave on a place. The explanation of what an ‘organic’ aerotropolis looks like is fascinating, offering a tantalizing description of something we’ve all seen many times with our own eyes.

The proscriptive elements of the aerotropolis are less convincing.  There’s an element of the worst parts of civic boosterism built in.  Others have hinted at the tendencies towards authoritarianism.  Perhaps the more concerning aspect is the seeming simplicity of the application of the idea.  The book’s own cover art evokes the simplicty of SimCity, even after the preceding detailed explanation of the various exceedingly complex networks and agglomerations of the aviation system.  To be fair, neither Kasarda nor Lindsay advocate for a ‘build it and they will come’ approach, yet it’s hard to not come away with that mindset from some of the Chinese ‘instant city’ anecdotes.

The formulaic nature of Kasarda’s concept almost seems to be a deliberate misunderstanding of the powers of agglomeration and networks. It’s clearly not a matter of just building it and they will come, no matter how much transportation might be able to shape development and growth.  As critical as trade may be, there’s more to it than just that. Likewise, as mammoth notes, airborne trade is but a small fraction of the overall flows.  Even if the flows of capital, knowledge, and skills matter a great deal, there is still a physical component to all of this – and the dominant mode of that flow is still the intermodal container.

Problems with the aerotropolis aside, Lindays’s analytic discussions of the shortcomings of air travel are robust.  The discussion of peak oil and climate change is particularly compelling, given the frequency of this critique.  Assertions that the aerotropolis is irrelevant because of peak oil and/or climate change is just as absurd as the denigrations of high speed rail in the US based on some notion that any American system must also be a transcontinental one – neither critique expresses an understanding of the comparative advantages of the technology.

I hope that people don’t dismiss the book off-hand because of some notion of globalization or of climate change. The explanatory value alone is well worth the read, both in documenting today’s conditions as well as in discussing the implications of global networks more and more reliant on air travel and just-on-time logistics.

Norman Foster’s aerotropolis

Image via Foster+Partners

Norman Foster is working on a concept for a massive new airport complex for London along the Thames Estuary. I first saw this (via ArchDaily) thanks to a shared Google Reader item (alas, no more) from Neil Flanagan.  Yesterday, Planetizen points to an Atlantic piece on the subject, featuring new renderings from Foster + Partners posted on DesignBoom:

understanding the transportation challenges facing britain, london-based practice foster + partners, have collaborated with consulting firms halcrow (international) and volterra (UK) for a self-funded study producing the ‘thames hub vision’, a detailed report that uses scale and strategic cross-sector thinking to design an integrated infrastructure network. the masterplan proposes to replace the existing thames barrier with a new crossing that will extend london’s protection from floods into the 22nd century. it will mitigate the capital from rising storm levels, free up vital land for development and harness tidal power to generate carbon-free energy.

building on existing transportation lines to the north, east and west of london ‘the hub’ will avoid future congestion into the city. an orbital rail system with a four-track, high-speed passenger and freight route will link london’s current radial lines, with a future high-speed rail line to the midlands and the north, the thames estuary ports, high speed 1, and european networks. by minimizing the developmental impact the environmental strategy aims to provides new wildlife habitats landscaped within the spine.

This is more or less the Aerotropolis in a tangible proposal.  John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay’s book spends a great deal of time on Heathrow; the inability of various cities (Chicago, Los Angeles) to build new and needed airports for various reasons; and cities that have done so through planning or via accident (Dulles, Dallas, Denver). Heathrow’s capacity constraints serve as a drag on not just London’s economy, but as a drag on key link in the global transport network.

Having read the book but never gotten around to a review, I thought I’d take this moment to highlight some of the more interesting thoughts I’ve come across regarding the importance of aviation as well as the aerotropolis concept.

Recently, Aaron Renn penned a somewhat pessimistic review of the somewhat totalitarian implications of planned aerotropoli:

A few things jumped at me out of the book. One of them is the close linkage between the aerotropolis and its boosters with authoritarianism (and by extension, similarly for globalization and its boosters). The second is that, despite vast sums of money and authoritarian rule, I didn’t come away with a sense of anyplace in the world that had fully pulled off Kasarda’s vision. Indeed, there are as many or more failures than successes. And even those successes are far from perfect ones.

Renn does highlight the fundamental issue, regardless of Kasarda’s plans and predictions: that aviation is a tremendous force in globalization and the flows of commerce. (For more on the tension between singular vision and democracy, see Alon Levy’s post on consensus and vision)  Back in March, mammoth made the case that the aerotropolis is merely the symbol of globalization.  Air travel might be the sexy mode, but the real work of global trade should probably be symbolized by the intermodal cargo container and all of its associated infrastructure.

It seems to me that the “aerotropolis” (particularly on the more restricted Kasarda definition) is more a symbol of globalization than it is the ultimate instantiation of globalization.  Sea shipping is (and was for centuries before the invention of flight) the dominant mode of global transport.  To get an indication of the difference in magnitude between sea and air shipping, just look at Shanghai, the world’s busiest cargo port by tonnage, and Memphis, the world’s busiest airport by tonnage: Memphis sees about three million tons a year; Shanghai sees around five hundred million tons a year.  This is not a statistical aberration.

(As an aside, Matt Yglesias makes the point that even in the age of global trade, geography and proximity still matter.) Renn also points out that theaerotropolis is ultimately a measure of connections and networks – and the idea of the aerotropolis as a proscription isn’t nearly as strong as it is in description:

The lesson I draw is that while good air connectivity is critical for a city in the global economy – indeed, I almost draw my threshold population for what constitutes a minimum viable city in the globalized world in terms of whether or not it is big enough to support a major airport – the airport is only one ingredient needed for success, not the entire recipe. Cities that pin their hopes too heavily on airport led transformation are bound to be disappointed. And even if you go in with the best of intentions trying to do airport development right, you are far from guaranteed to have success.

Renn’s critique is well put, though I feel it ends up talking past some of the broader themes that Lindsay and Kasarda highlight in favor of deconstructing Kasarada’s specific, proscriptive vision for the future of air travel.  In many ways, their main thesis isn’t anything new, just another example of transportation infrastructure shaping human development.

Also disputing the tone of telling is what we want, Kazys Varnelis disputes the book’s tag line, “the way you’ll live next.”

The answer is that the Aerotropolis is already here and it’s really not all that exciting. I went on two international flights in the last two weeks. Newark International Airport is about a half hour drive from the apartment I rent while La Guardia is about a half hour cab ride from Columbia. Do I really need to be closer? Could I really be closer, like the inhabitants of Kowloon Walled City who had jets pass by a hundred meters overhead?

No. I am far enough away that I don’t hear the noise from the planes too often, don’t viscerally experience the pollution, and don’t feel something is going to crash on my head.

Today, the City Paper linked to some great photos from the National Archives from the 1970s, including one of the District as a parking lot during a 1974 transit strike.  Varnelis’ words echo the last image in the set of a DC-10 on approach into Logan Airport in Boston in 1973:

For more on Aerotropolis (the book), see this excellent interview with co-author Greg Lindsey at BLDGBLOG.

Innovative re-use along the low road

Screencap from Bundled, Buried, and Behind Closed Doors

Assorted (and tangentially related) links:

1. Stephen Smith also digs into Eric Colbert (see my previous post here):

I’m not sure I agree with her parenthetical about DC’s “historic fabric” being “so strong already” – in fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a newer city on the Northeast Corridor than Washington – but she’s definitely right that that’s what Washingtonians, even the not-so-native ones, think of their city. Of-right development – that is, building within the zoning code in a way that does not trigger a subjective review – is on the wane everywhere in America, but in DC it’s even rarer, and therefore personal relationships like the ones Eric Colbert has (“an ANC 2B commissioner, who had worked with Colbert on previous projects, introduced him with affection”) are even more important than usual when compared to good design.

A few points. A) I’m not sure why Stephen associates the strength of a city’s fabric with age – DC’s fabric has the advantage of being largely intact.  B) Stephen more explicitly states the same thesis – that Colbert’s architecture is ‘boring,’ and boring is, by association, bad design.  I would disagree that fabric is boring – on the contrary, fabric is essential. C) It’s a mistake to conflate the countable and objective measures of development (square footage, height, density, etc) with more subjective measures like ‘good design.’  Stephen conflates two key elements here – development by right, and design by right. The regulatory structures and processes that govern both are quite different.

2. Cities are all about context. Atlantic Cities discusses a review of San Francisco by John King, from iconic buildings to more mundane (boring?) elements of the urban fabric.

3. Mammoth links to another Atlantic piece, discussing “Low Road” buildings and their importance in urban economics, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

The startup lore says that many companies were founded in garages, attics, and warehouses. Once word got around, companies started copying the formula. They stuck stylized cube farms into faux warehouses and figured that would work. The coolness of these operations would help them look cool and retain employees. Keep scaling that idea up and you get Apple’s ultrahip mega headquarters, which is part spaceship and part Apple Store.

But as Stewart Brand argued in his pathbreaking essay, “‘Nobody Cares What You Do in There’: The Low Road,” it’s not hip buildings that foster creativity but crappy ones.

“Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover,” Brand wrote. “Most of the world’s work is done in Low Road buildings, and even in rich societies the most inventive creativity, especially youthful creativity, will be found in Low Road buildings taking full advantage of the license to try things.”

Being on the low road isn’t exactly the same as being a part of the fabric – the price point and the prominence don’t always correlate – but the concept is somewhat similar.  These spaces are easy to adapt and reuse. Not just easy, but cheap.

4. Where Stewart Brand discusses the space of innovation, Ryan Avent has another (follow-up) piece on the geography of innovation:

I think that the authors have basically gotten the state of innovation right: we are approaching a critical point at which impressive progress in information technology becomes explosive progress. And I think that the authors are right that the extent to which we are able to take advantage of these technological developments will hinge on how successful America’s tinkerers are at experimenting with new business models and turning them into new businesses. But I also think that there is a critical geographic component to that process of experimentation and entrepreneurship and, as I wrote in my book, I think we are systematically constraining the operation of that component.

High housing costs constitute a substantial regulatory tax burden on residence in many high productivity areas. These are the places where the tinkerers are having their ongoing innovative conversation. But if the tinkerers are driven away, the conversation loses depth and breadth, and we lose many of the combinations that might go on to be the next big company — the next big employer. That, to me, is a very worrying idea.

5. When considering both the versatility of space as well as the institutional and infrastructural momentum (as well as touching on the importance of information technology), Mammoth also links to a short documentary of the infrastructure of the internet: Bundled, Buried, and Behind Closed Doors: