Monday, July 1, 2019

In transit it isn't the technology that matters

The latest example of a transportation need being discussed in terms of technology is the I-270 corridor for which Hogan, always good for more pavement, proposed additional toll lanes until the Board of Public Works suggested to also look at monorail.  Yes, monorail as in the train that runs through Disneyland in Anaheim and that was once considered futuristic in Seattle when the Space Needle opened in 1962.
I-270 Monorail: Back to the future
Advocates said Tuesday that Maryland’s transportation chief has agreed to make a monorail on Interstate 270 part of a traffic relief study examining the potential environmental impacts of adding toll lanes to the highway.
Charlie Maier said Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn told him and other monorail advocates at a meeting Tuesday that their idea of building a 27-mile monorail between Frederick and the Shady Grove Metro station is “worth additional exploration.” Rahn said it “makes sense” to include monorail as an option in an upcoming study of adding toll lanes to I-270 north of Interstate 370 in Gaithersburg, according to Maier. (Washington Post)
Not always are the solutions quite as nostalgic: Hogan is also on the record with his desire to make the Baltimore Washington Parkway wider and a State road instead of a National Parkway and consider Maglev as an adjunct that would either run in the median or below the highway. Magnetically levitated trains are another one of those "futuristic" tech toys, although Maglev is around since 1979 (Transrapid, Hamburg Germany), but since then has been upgraded in Japan to run  faster and more expensive with superconductors.
Seattle Monorail: Futuristic since 1962

Hogan-Rahn are also onboard with Elon Musk's dream of a Hyperloop, an underground projectile running in a vacuum tube. It too is in some stage of review for the B-W Parkway corridor. However, Musk has since dumbed down the sonic speed idea to a simple Tesla on a sled system that would not serve any transportation needs by its own accounting in a preliminary Environmental Assessment.

What all these transit dreams of grown man that act like excited little boys have in common is that they are dreamed by highway fanatics that only have a soft-spot for transit when it has a technological spin that isn't derived by any actual transportation need but solely from a fantasy and what these men consider cool.

People who really understand transit don't start discussing transportation solutions with a technology and a specific mode. Transit projects supported by the federal government require to be based on a "Purpose and Need" study and then investigate in a  neutral, fact based manner alternatives including routes, modes and technologies that could meet the needs in the most effective way. Usually, more than one mode and technology can move the desired amount of people in the necessary time from A to B or places in between.

There is absolutely nothing that speaks for a cart before the horse solution in which one jumps headlong into a specific technology and mode just because there is an individual or company who wants to sell their product. This is especially true for those outside technologies which are only made by very few companies around the world, no matter how desperate those companies may be to finally sell their stuff to some gullible mayor or secretary of transportation. Selling monorail is so trite that it ranks right with snake oil and has its very own Simpsons show.
German Transrapid Maglev: Futuristic since 19979

While proponents of Maglev tout speed and a frictionless technology, monorail has really nothing going for itself that any elevated conventional rail system couldn't do just as well, or better, given that conventional rail is made worldwide, thus the componnets are widely available and more competitive  and compatible with what is already out there.

Monorail shares with its conventional elevated tracks brethren (a la Baltimore subway between Penn North and Old Court) that it can avoid roads and crossings, that it needs lots of concrete structures which eventually becomes expensive to maintain. Elevated trains also need elevated stations that are expensive to build, need support columns, elevators and escalators and essentially take up just as much space as an at grade station.

At grade, elevated or even in a tunnel under a freeway, transit that is nothing but an afterthought of a highway is never a good idea as the isolated Owings Mills metro line and station demonstrates. Yes, running transit in or above a median is convenient, but that is where the advantages end. People are not like cars and waiting on a platform between cars whizzing by at 60 or 70 miles per hour just brings home the message that one is wasting time with transit. (This would be slightly different, if I-270 wouldn't be widened and transit would be the alternative to frequent gridlock). But spending billions on additional lanes and building transit at the same time in the same corridor is a serious case of transportation schizophrenia. Its like a dietitian advising to eat healthy food but at the same time handing out an annual subscription for cheeseburgers.
Hogan/Rahn: Never a highway they don't like

Getting Maryland's transportation right is deciding Maryland's future. It is time that it is done by people who don't fall for charlatans, gimmicks or corporate pressure. As the FTA requires, transportation planning must be evidence and data based, it must be based on needs and it must serve a purpose. Equity and economic development are desirbale and admissible benefits, but some down-payments by greedy private contractors who want to get a foot in the door and will ultimately delegate risk and cost to the public are not. This would apply to the Japanese consortium that makes and sells MagLev and would pay some small part of the construction cost as well as for P3 road developers who loan the state all the money for toll lanes and then want it back plus interest and profit, something that is like buying a car on a credit card. It costs the State dearly in the long run while tolls come straight out of the pockets of users.

Wasted Investments: Paving over Maryland
Autonomous vehicles will add 20-40% capacity without more pavement
This is not to say that a properly vetted transit or road project could not have a private component or partner, but that aspect should never be the driver that defines the project.

If the Secretary is interested in future technology, he should consider this: Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be common faster than even the most avid road construction fan can build new toll lanes. These vehicles, if properly managed, and if they are fleet based instead of privately owned, are estimated to add 20-40% of capacity to existing roadways without building anything. If not properly managed and privately owned, though, the added efficiency would quickly be gobbled up by induced demand and more sprawl. An actual nightmare.

But if properly managed, the AV could provide many benefits, among them: MDOT would finally have time and resources to focus on viable, useful and need based urban and intercity transit, a need that won't go away, no matter how many AVs there will be.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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