Buying a car is a ridiculous hassle

This Wired article about auto dealers getting in a huff about Tesla “education stores” brings up a long-simmering annoyance about the ridiculous protectionism afforded auto dealers.

As part of a family that is thinking about replacing an aging vehicle, I have recently experienced this craziness.  Not open on Sundays? When do you expect families with small kids to shop?  Only located in the hinterland? (Except notably Borton Volvo)  Why can’t you just bring a few cars in the city?  Why do you need a ginormous lot?

As expensive as they are, a car purchase should be a full-on spa treatment in my opinion.  I can do my “shopping” online, thank you, but I think a well-trained dealer should drive a car to my house or my work for a test drive.  I think I should also be able to shop online and get the full, non-adjustable retail price, just like any other retail product.  No destination charges or special offers at each dealer.  How many jobs are we really protecting by keeping the current system the way it is?  I might buy cars more often if the experience weren’t so horrible.  And, we certainly aren’t doing ourselves any favors land use-wise by enabling these companies to locate in places where they can keep a whole year of inventory on-site.

Road train tested on public roads

Your first robot car might not be the totally-robot google kind, but a lesser robot that only takes over when you’re on the freeway.  Volvo has taken their long-running road train test to public streets in Spain.

Volvo used three vehicles – a XC60, a V60 and a S60 – that drove autonomously following a truck for 200 kilometers (124 miles) at 85 kilometers an hour (53 miles per hour) on the roads outside Barceolona. The follows vehicles used “cameras, radar and laser sensors” and wireless communication to copy what the lead vehicle is doing “using Ricardo autonomous control – accelerating, braking and turning in exactly the same way as the leader.” The vehicles were about six meters (20 feet) apart.

I sold my car

Today we sold our family’s second car. Since taking a new job last year, my car mostly sat in the driveway. I can get to work really easy on the bus or on a bike (and the same for my wife, to a slightly lesser degree) and parking costs made me think twice when I considered driving to work.

The sale was an emotional experience. I loved driving the car, and I’ve always liked driving. I got my learners permit when I was fourteen (Iowa let ’em drive early) and as with most teenagers (at least back then) , the car signaled freedom to me. My feelings about driving have moderated some since, but I’ve retained much of the original nostalgia and excitement, especially when starting a road trip. I’ve learned a lot about the impacts on our cities and climate reliance on the car creates since that initial love affair, but in the end, the strongest reason we had to ditch the second car was cost.  Hundreds of dollars a week is a strong motivator.

But this wasn’t a simple matter of deciding to ride the bus more. A large number of factors has to converge to make it possible for a family of three with two jobs outside the home to make do with one (private) vehicle.

  • Working in the hub of a hub-and-spoke transit network. We have lots of bus routes that are fairly competitive with a car because my wife and I both work in or near downtown. This wouldn’t be the case if we worked in the suburbs, inner ring or outer.
  • We found a great daycare nine blocks from our house.  You can walk there easily in most weather from our house or take the bus/bike.  The location and density of daycare centers should not be overlooked if your goal is to encourage alternative modes.
  • Minneapolis is walkable and fairly bikeable.  The city does a pretty good job making it feel safe and easy to walk and bike places.  Destination density (stores, food, etc) is tolerably high in some neighborhoods, although it could definitely be better.
  • New technologies.  We feel better with one car knowing their is a car-sharing service that parks a car a few blocks from our house.
  • We have the resources to rent a car when we need it.  Even if we do this once a month for a week, we still save a lot versus owning.

We really depend on automobiles a lot.  If we want to change that for whatever reason, or if we want to be sensitive to the needs of those who can’t afford a car, then it’s about way more than providing transit.

All US road casualties mapped

Via Steve Vance and David Levinson comes this disturbing and interesting web map.

369,629 people died on America’s roads between 2001 and 2009. Following its analysis of UK casualties last week, transport data mapping experts ITO World have taken the official data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – and produced this powerful map using OpenStreetMap. You can zoom around the map using the controls on the left or search for your town using the box on the right – and the key is on the top left. Each dot represents a life.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 4)

Yet another view on the proposed Stillwater bridge to Wisconsin.  This time from Micky Cook, a Stillwater city council member in the Pioneer Press.

There are roughly 18,000 commuters who use the Stillwater lift bridge during rush hours on weekdays. The cost of the new bridge is $668 million. Rebuilding the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis cost less than half that amount, $261 million. How can we justify such an outrageous expense in this economy to accommodate a Wisconsin commuter corridor? According to MnDOT, 75 percent of weekday trips are commuters coming from Wisconsin. There already is a major freeway bridge roughly five miles south of the proposed site on Interstate 94 that connects to a network of highways in Wisconsin.

We all know the litany of economic ills we face. Gas prices are approaching an all-time high, a record number of homes are in foreclosure, people have lost their jobs and there is no more local government aid to help municipalities maintain services. The price tag on this project warrants serious discussion. If we do have that kind of money, shouldn’t we use it to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of existing bridges and roads?

Isn’t this really just another development story? The current contingent pushing hard for a new bridge argues it is for the greatest possible good. We need to ask for whom and at what cost?

Ms. Cook also proposes some alternative solutions to deal with traffic in the area caused by commuters.

What about metering traffic lights or negotiating with the Coast Guard for a change in the lift bridge schedule to reduce the number of times the bridge is lifted during peak times? We could post the lift schedule and ask MnDOT to set up a traffic notice at the I-694 and I-494 interchange off of Highway 36, alerting drivers of bridge delays and redirecting them to alternate routes. We could lobby to make the lift bridge one-way heading west in the morning and eastbound for the afternoon commute. Big employers in the area could provide shuttle services and offer incentives for Wisconsin employees to use it from a Park & Ride on the other side of the river. Stillwater could use reserve officers to direct traffic during critical commute times and on busy summer weekends.

I’m sure there are other traffic control measures that could be implemented. Not all solutions have to cost outrageous sums of money. But it’s not as exciting as building a big new shiny bridge. And it goes without saying, if the lift bridge poses a real safety risk, it should be shut down immediately.

A very cheap traffic control measure not mentioned would be closing the lift bridge to car traffic.  I don’t believe this would have much ill effect on Stillwater, and would quickly solve traffic problems caused by commuters (I think they’d still have a lot of traffic, which is a good thing for downtown).

P.S. I really don’t intend for this blog to be all Stillwater bridge, all the time, I promise.  Things have just been a little busy lately.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 3)

Stillwater Bridge "Low-Slow" Alternative Drawing

Writing for Minnpost, Steve Berg points out that most politicians seem to view the Stillwater bridge as a freeway-style-bridge versus no freeway-style-bridge proposition, even though there may be another alternative.

What might this new bridge look like?

As I wrote here on March 4, a new bridge should relieve Stillwater’s summertime traffic problems without inducing an excessive amount of sprawl development on the Wisconsin side of the river. Obviously, its design should not intrude on the historic and natural quality of the valley.

That means a so-called “low, slow” solution (PDF) — a bridge that wouldn’t span the river from bluff top to bluff top but drop down to a level more in scale with the existing Lift Bridge. Speeds (and noise) should be kept to a minimum. Engineers might consider a three-lane design that would allow east-west flexibility depending on traffic flow. The bridge should be dynamically tolled as a way to fairly shift costs to users and to help manage traffic buildup in the area.

The park service, in rejecting the freeway-style bridge, seemed almost to invite such a design while rejecting outright the freeway-style bridge that MnDOT proposed.

Note that Berg calls for “dynamic tolling” to shift the cost to users, manage traffic and assumedly reduce sprawl (not subsidize low-density development in Wisconsin).  Other expert sources say a 4-lane bridge would not have enough demand to pay the tolls required to fund it, so I assume demand from a slower, narrower span would not generate enough in tolls to pay the cost.  Perhaps this is why MNDOT has floated the idea of a $3 toll, which would only cover half of the construction cost (but would cover maintenance) of the bigger bridge.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 2)

Alex, author of Getting Around Minneapolis, has posted an excellent letter he wrote to his representatives and Governor Dayton about the proposed Stillwater bridge.

Dear Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Governor Dayton,

I’m writing to urge you not to support a new bridge across the St. Croix River near Stillwater.  A new bridge would hugely encourage sprawl, which damages the environmentrequires costly infrastructure such as sewers and roads, and fosters unhealthy automobile-dependent lifestyles.  Furthermore, a new bridge is not necessary, since the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south of Stillwater has a great deal of excess capacity.

Continue reading

Road Trains Tested In The Real World

Road Train Test

Road trains (also called vehicle platooning) are convoys of semi-autonomous vehicles with a professional driver in the lead vehicle.  The Safe Roads and Trains for the Environment initiative (SARTRE) describes road trains as:

…a convoy of vehicles where a professional driver in a lead vehicle drives a line of other vehicles. Each car measures the distance, speed and direction and adjusts to the car in front. All vehicles are totally detached and can leave the procession at any time. But once in the platoon, drivers can relax and do other things while the platoon proceeds towards its long haul destination.

Road trains were actually tested in the real world by Volvo, who is part of the SARTRE team, in December.  They cite the benefits of road trains as numerous:

Platooning is designed to improve a number of things: Firstly road safety, since it minimises the human factor that is the cause of at least 80 percent of the road accidents. Secondly, it saves fuel consumption and thus CO2 emissions by up to 20 percent. It is also convenient for the driver because it frees up time for other matters than driving. And since the vehicles will travel at highway speed with only a few meters gap, platooning may also relieve traffic congestion.

There are some potential downsides to road trains as well, but ideally they can deliver many of the benefits of intra-city transit without some of the drawbacks.  Really road trains are just a stepping stone to fully autonomous cars, and caveats of same apply here as well.

The Rest Of The Story On Robot Cars

The City Fix scooped me on using the Johnny Cab image, but tribute must be paid to such a forward-looking film.

The internet seemed to resound with almost unmitigated delight when Google announced their progress on driverless cars last week.  German scientists see a “golden future” for their driverless vehicles.  There are, however, some key implications that are being missed about what it means if our cars are driven by robots.  I’ll preface the rest of this post by saying that I think the benefits of robot cars probably outweigh the drawbacks.  However, robot cars are not a panacea, and we shouldn’t overlook unintended consequences.

David Levinson at The Transportationist does an excellent job summarizing why robot cars matter, but in my opinion doesn’t go far enough explaining the potential downsides.  Here are some of my thoughts on why we should adopt robot cars carefully, even with their myriad advantages.   Continue reading

Cities prepare for the electric car, but are they thinking about the roads?

Potholes - courtesy flickr user MSVG

The New York Times describes a number of cities, mostly in California, that are preparing their communities for the adoption of more electric vehicles. Primarily this means installing charging stations in public places and addressing code issues related to charging stations at single family homes. According to the article, San Francisco will soon have a new ordinance that requires new structures have the wiring to accommodate charging stations.

The article doesn’t address the other half of the auto infrastructure: the roads. To “prepare” for the electric car, and probably even an efficient system that doesn’t include the electric car, road funding needs to change. We already know that users now only pay about half of the cost of roads, which means there are no market signals for road users to choose the most efficient mode or “consume” an appropriate amount of transportation service (miles traveled). We also have some serious deferred maintenance issues.  If electric vehicles are adopted in large numbers funding for roads, which comes in large part from the gas tax, will continue to dry up.

So besides building charging stations and beefing up transmission infrastructure, cities, counties and states (and users, if they want good roads) should be advocating for a mileage-based fee, similar to what has been studied in Oregon and implemented in the Netherlands, to pay for road building and maintenance. The gas tax would probably have to stay, but as a way to put a price on carbon pollution rather than fund transportation.

This new mileage fee could be tacked unto your home electricity bill if you had a charging station, but that would probably mean a lot of creative solutions would pop up (solar panels) to avoid the fee. While this would have it’s environmental benefits, it wouldn’t solve the transportation funding problem. So the fee should be based purely on mileage, not the fuel used. Existing technology is adequate to provide a method to assess the fee, including addressing privacy concerns. The Oregon pilot has shown that this can work, it’s only a matter of political will to implement it.