Friday, July 29, 2016

HART and City Nominated for Prestigious Award

The Federal Transit Administration was delighted to receive our submission in mid-July.

The Transportation Planning Excellence Awards Program is a biennial awards program co-developed by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This program recognizes and celebrates outstanding transportation practices performed by planners and decision makers in communities across the country (see Award Criteria).

Cliff Slater, Panos Prevedouros and Randall Roth nominate the City of Honolulu (City) and Honolulu Authority Rapid Transportation (HART) for the following, barely believable feats:

  1. Against all odds and at a time of record federal deficits and a slumping local economy, the City and HART somehow managed to extract and divert more than $5 billion in local funds (the upper range of which is still a mystery) and garner FTA support for $1.55 billion in federal funds – all to build an elevated heavy rail system that was out-of-date before construction even began (Antiquated Rail System)!

  2. Making the funding for this Antiquated Rail System all the more remarkable is a population of potential commuters on Oahu that is dramatically smaller than the smallest urban area in the U.S.A. that still has an Antiquated Rail System.

  3. One could perhaps argue that San Juan, Puerto Rico pulled off an equally amazing accomplishment by securing its own Antiquated Rail System relatively recently, but Puerto Rico is just a territory (so heaven alone knows what really goes on there) and San Juan did not have itself to point to as evidence that Antiquated Rail Systems invariably cost a lot more, and attract considerably fewer riders, than self-interested planners and politicians tend to predict.  We now know that the actual cost of San Juan’s Antiquated Rail System exceeded the final funding agreement estimate by 78% and that actual ridership is less than a third of the projected number.  In fact, the combined ridership of bus and rail is now less than just bus ridership before rail (see p. 25 of 32 and
p. 23 of 29).

  4. The City and HART even managed to impede and then ignore the work of The Infrastructure Management Group (IMG), an independent expert retained by the then-governor for a second opinion on the likely cost of an Antiquated Rail System.  Here’s how IMG described its experience and findings:
“[T]he IMG Team found the extreme difficulty in being able to obtain information from the City and its consultants both unique in our collective experience and [a hindrance to] our ability to perform the project.  This was also a puzzlement – why would the City wish to restrict the team engaged to review the project's financial plan from being able to obtain the information necessary to perform its work?
“A multi-billion dollar transportation improvement project, particularly one that is proposed to be operated in, and funded by, an urbanized area that is far smaller than the norm for such projects, should have its financial plan developed with methodologies that incorporate the highest professional and technical standards and techniques.  As we demonstrate [in this report], the financial planning and modeling process for [this] Project fails this ‘best practices’ test in many ways.”
  5. Making the pursuit of an Antiquated Rail System all the more remarkable was the discovery that senior people at the FTA had commented in interagency email about the City’s “lousy practices of public manipulation,” use of “inaccurate statements,” and culture of “never [having] enough time to do it right, but lots of time to do it over.”  FTA also noted that the City had put itself in a “pickle” by setting unrealistic start dates for construction, and criticized the City’s “casual treatment of burials.”

  6. Speaking of which, who could have predicted that the City and HART could skirt federal burial laws, essentially by denying the high likelihood of unearthing protected remains and promising to be “respectful?”

  7.  Equally noteworthy was the City and HART’s mischaracterization of the viable alternatives to rail—you know, the ones that would have been affordable and actually relieve traffic congestion, protect the environment, and preserve the Hawaiian sense of place.

  8. We would be remiss in not mentioning that the City and HART managed to convince much of the public that an Antiquate Rail System would actually reduce the current level of traffic congestion despite an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that said the exact opposite.  In all fairness to other nominees for this award, however, the FTA assisted that particular ruse by stating in a press release a belief that “this project will bring much needed relief from the suffocating congestion on the H-1 Freeway.”  This statement from the FTA was directly contrary to the FTA-approved Final EIS in which the City acknowledged that “traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail.”   

  9. On their own, the City and HART started construction without even beginning to plan for the eventual payment of operating costs.  Just imagine, more than $100 million per year in added operating costs (roughly 5% of the City’s entire budget), and the City/HART does an Alfred E. Newman imitation: “What, us worry?”

  10. Similarly, the City and HART have not said where it will find money for repairs and maintenance to the Antiquated Rail System.  With the Washington DC rail system literally falling apart one might have expected someone in our nation’s capitol—perhaps even someone with the FTA—to mention that.  Likewise for the City and HART’s failure to plan for security, fare collection, adequate parking, and accessible bathrooms. 

  11. In 2004 Mayor Mufi Hannemann claimed it would cost $2.7 billion to build a 34-mile Antiquated Rail System.  The estimated cost is now $8.1 billion, and climbing, while the planned length is down to 20 miles, and shrinking. 

  12. When an independent financial audit found in 2016 that HART had “failed to perform qualitative analysis” and had relied on “insufficient cost-control,” HART called the audit “a joke,” and kept doing what it had been doing.  Booya! 

We hope that the FTA can detect satire, and that it will someday hold itself accountable, along with the City and HART, for Honolulu’s rail fiasco.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

"Mandating V2V Connectivity Is a Waste of Time"

Ronald Bailey, Science Correspondent, Reason magazine (adapted from "Will Politicians Block Our Driverless Future,", June 18, 2016)

There are two "equally important components that will determine the future of autonomous vehicles," Lyft's vice president for government relations, Joseph Okpaku said at a March Senate Commerce Committee hearing. "The first is the interaction of everyday people with these new vehicles, and the second is the much more unpredictable interface of government with this entirely new transportation resource."

University of Texas engineer Kara Kockelman notes that traditional automakers tend to "see the transition to self-driving as a very natural, very normal process adding over time features like GPS, adaptive cruise control, cameras, lane-keeping-assist systems, dedicated short-range communication, and so forth." Such semi-autonomous vehicles can safely operate only in predictable traffic environments, so some manufacturers are suggesting that dedicated additional infrastructure, such as separate highway lanes, be built for them.

But "special lanes are a bad idea," says Kockelman. "They would be incredibly expensive and constraining." Planners, politicians, and regulators may think that establishing dedicated infrastructure for self-driving cars is helpful, but autonomous vehicle pioneer Brad Templeton notes that "such rules could easily lead to them not being allowed in ordinary lanes."

Kockelman argues that semi-autonomous vehicles, or what NHTSA calls "limited self-driving automation," present a big safety problem. With these so-called Level 3 vehicles, drivers cede full control to the car for the most part, but must be ready at all times to take over if something untoward occurs. The problem is that such semi-autonomous cars travel along safely 99 percent of the time, allowing the attention of their bored drivers to falter. In an August 2015 study, NHTSA reported that depending on the on-board alert, it took drivers as long as 17 seconds to regain manual control of the semi-autonomous car. "The radical change to full automation is important," argues Kockelman. "Level 3 is too dangerous. We have to jump over that to Level 4 full automation, and most manufacturers don't want to do that. They want protection; they want baby steps; they want special corridors. They won't get that."

Consequently, the first law of the robocar revolution, according to Templeton, is that "you don't change the infrastructure." Whatever functionality is needed to drive safely should be on board each individual vehicle. "Just tell the software people that this is the road you have to drive on, and let them figure it out," Templeton says. "Everything you must do is in the software, or you lose." Some self-driving shuttles confined to specific areas—airports, pedestrian malls, colleges campuses—will be deployed, but they are not the future of this technology.

Another infrastructure mistake would be mandating the deployment of "smart roadside infrastructure," such as traffic lights and sensors to monitor conditions like icing on bridges and communicate the information via radio to autonomous cars. In 2015, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D, MI), Gary Peters (D, MI), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) embraced this idea when they introduced the Vehicle Innovation Act, which included spending more than $300 million on various favored tech, including vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications systems.

Before embracing such external information systems, keep in mind that the U.S. DOT estimated in 2007 that 75% of the nation's 330,000 traffic lights are mistimed or use obsolete control systems. "If city and county street and road agencies can't keep traffic signals up-to-date, how long would it take them to install and upgrade smart road systems?" Randal O'Toole asked in a 2014 Cato Institute study, "Policy Implications of Autonomous Vehicles." It's all most states and cities can do to fix potholes, much less deploy and maintain sophisticated networks of roadway sensors.

Other regulators and politicians want to require automobiles to be equipped with V2V communications tech using dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) protocols. The idea is that cars could talk to one another to provide warnings of traffic jams, accidents ahead, or vehicles in front that are braking. They might even cooperate with one another to get through intersections. A good bit of the Obama Administration's promised $4 billion for autonomous vehicles would be earmarked forV2V research and development.

"DSRC is already obsolete," argues Kockelman. "Regulators simply can't write down a communications standard that will be useful for a long time." Templeton agrees. "People outside the industry think it's essential, and the car companies are just going along with it to keep them happy," he says. "It's something designed in 2000 [that] wouldn't be fully deployed until 2030 or later." The bottom line: "Mandating V2V connectivity is stupid and a waste of time."

Templeton cites the internet as a model for how to roll out the technologies that enable self-driving cars. "The internet is a dumb network that connects smart devices," he explains. "You want smart cars running on stupid roads." Dumb networks push innovation to the edge, giving end-users control over the speed and direction of change.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Manila Traffic Congestion

Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 14th, 2016: Citing a six-hour commuting “kalbaryo” for Metro Manila commuters, the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) has reiterated its call for President-elect Rodrigo Duterte to declare a traffic crisis so that he could be given emergency powers to solve the problem.

Then two weeks later...

GMA News, July 1, 2016: Senate President Franklin Drilon on Friday filed a bill seeking to grant President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers to address the perennial traffic problem not only in Metro Manila but also in other major urban areas as well.

Indeed Manila's traffic congestion is extraordinary and a simple screen capture from Google tells the story:

I was in Manila in mid-July and I decided to book a 3-hour ride in a taxi to take in the sights... and the congestion.  This was on a Saturday when traffic is slightly less hectic than weekdays. However, around the two hour point I have had it and asked the driver to take me back!

Traffic flow in Manila is very disorganized. The root cause of the congestion are the jitneys and city buses that stop anywhere, including the third or fourth lane of a 10-lane arterial road to embark and disembark passengers. They fiercely compete and block each other in order to secure the tiny fare.

This is a brutal system the at various times reduced the roadway capacity from upward of 5.000 vehicles per hour to under 2,000 vehicles per hour.  I witnessed a jitney driver on a 6-lane road (3 lanes per direction, no shoulders) stopping and blocking a lane to relieve himself by the jersey barrier. I saw an 1-lane left turn becoming a 3-lane left turn because road connectivity is poor. I was told, but I did not witness it, that passenger processing occurs ever on freeway! Taxis and buses stop and pick up people on the freeway. The traffic flow situation in Manila is brutal, chaotic, wasteful and nonsensical.

I also spent a few days in Legaspi City, population about 200,000 where most roads are basic 2-lane roads, one lane per direction. Legaspi has better planning and road capacity for its current level of traffic, but again, random stops by the ubiquitous trikes and jitneys waste over 50% of the road capacity, sometimes creating a quarter mile queue when none should be there given the amount of traffic present.

However, the political moves made in the Philippines government do not seem to address the problem.  The changes are more about contracting and less about flow management and transportation service regulation. Strict penalties for lane blockage must be enacted. The rampant police officer bribing which allows the chaos of passenger processing to continue must stop.

Buses need to be organized into scheduled transit service (not necessarily government transit, but organized, regulated transit) with drivers being professional operators nor highway sharks. Most jitneys need to be regulated out of existence. They are slow, cumbersome and very polluting.  Some of the jitneys (a Manila icon) may be retained and upgraded for neighborhood (feeder) service.

And one more "to do": The Philippines must regulate 2-stroke engines as soon as possible to rid of their toxic pollution (burnt oil in addition to gasoline exhaust).