Transit Elevated Bus: That’s not a bus, it’s a big train

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In the last few months, an idea in search of a solution, has emerged from China: a giant car-straddling bus which would soar above waiting traffic below. Which sounds awesome; I’ve been to Beijing – the ring roads are some of the most congested pavement on earth. Let’s go to the grey lady with, China’s Straddling Bus, on a Test Run, Floats Above Streets:

If you’re driving in a Chinese city in the none-too-distant future and your car is engulfed in a smooth, humming metallic belly, don’t panic. It may feel like an alien abduction, but probably it’s only a colossal, street-straddling bus.

The idea of a bus so large, high and long that it could virtually levitate above congested streets seemed surreal when presented at an expo in Beijing in May. But it came a step closer to reality this week, when a prototype went for an experimental spin in Qinhuangdao, a seaside city in northern China.

But having about 7 feet of vertical clearance for cars to go underneath feels like a disaster waiting to happen. And this isn’t a bus – it’s a new type of light rail vehicle. You can see the running rails on either side of the vehicle, below:

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It appears that the rail system is a running guide rail and the propulsion is by rubber tires, very similar to Paris Metro rubber tire subway cars.

teb-3If the goal is to densify the street and overlay many different modes of transport, this might be your ticket. It is interesting if you don’t have the time or money to build heavy rail or subway system, or don’t have the right of way to build surface rail. This feels like a solution when your constraint is to not reduce vehicle miles traveled in low-occupancy vehicles, or you cannot densify a lane of traffic by using light rail or even high-value bus rapid transit.

Putting my pendant hat on: let’s stop calling this a bus (because it isn’t).

 

 

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Smart City makes people say silly things

Columbus, Ohio Aerial

First: the idea that cities need to become smarter through top-down “design” utilizing massive investment in computers, sensing, and the like is a fallacy which industry is only too happy to exploit to the detriment of citizenry. I wholeheartedly co-sign what Adam says here: The Case Against the ‘Smart City’.

For context, Columbus, Ohio (my hometown) won a US$50 million US DoT grant:

The city beat out six other finalists for the competition to receive $50 million in grant funding from the federal government and Vulcan Inc. to develop Columbus into the nation’s proving ground for intelligent transportation systems.

Today’s example of misreading what is happening comes from the Guardian’s “expose” Secretive Alphabet division funded by Google aims to fix public transit in US:

Sidewalk Labs, a secretive subsidiary of Alphabet, wants to radically overhaul public parking and transportation in American cities, emails and documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.

Its high-tech services, which it calls “new superpowers to extend access and mobility”, could make it easier to drive and park in cities and create hybrid public/private transit options that rely heavily on ride-share services such as Uber. But they might also gut traditional bus services and require cities to invest heavily in Google’s own technologies, experts fear.

A point made later in the article about the effects of shifting usage patterns from public transit to private for-hire services such as Uber or Lyft causing a disinvestment, is well taken. And we need to guard against this. But this article takes collaboration between the private sector and government as something deeply sinister.

Let Laura Bliss of The Atlantic CityLab drop some knowledge about Sidewalk Lab’s software called Flow:

Overall, the article gives the impression that Flow is some kind of top-down planning regime, conceived in secret by Sidewalk Labs and foisted on cities like Columbus. It makes it sound conspiratorial. But that isn’t really the case.

First, the Guardian article does not mention that Flow was announced in March, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation, as technology offered for free by Sidewalk Labs to the Smart Cities Challenge victor. The exclusive documents obtained by the Guardian were, according to Sidewalk Labs, pitch materials shared with finalist cities that modeled some of the possible functions of Flow. Since the platform has still yet to be deployed in any city, the specific elements of Flow remain a work in progress.

In these situations, having the software, results, and everything released as open source is the best case – The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s open source by default policy is a great example of this in action. Sidewalk labs is trying to jumpstart their entry into this market, leveraging the existing datastore Google has, and putting new software to the test. We can argue if Google being this partner is a public good or not.

To me, this appears to be a grant aimed at prototyping and learning at an urban scale – which by itself is difficult.

We’ll end with Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs CEO: The 3 Biggest Problems Urban Designers Have To Solve:

The Smart City Challenge began the conversation about tech-enabled mobility, but we’ve partnered with Transportation for America to broaden it to dozens more cities across the U.S., in the hopes of learning even more. Because at the end of the day, any strong public-private partnership works with cities to understand their unique challenges, and gives them the tools to resolve them on their own. What cities do with these tools—whether it’s run more buses, or expand bike-share networks, or develop connected fare cards, or subsidize shared mobility—is entirely up to them. It can’t succeed any other way.

NYC Home Rule on Residential FAR paused

Last week saw the introduction of Senate Bill S5469 which would have effectively remove the FAR restrictions for Residential Districts in New York City. Which sounds great right? More home rule for NYC, and possibly more residential buildings to satisfy our housing shortage.

But the Municipal Arts Society, which is full of smart people, is against this measure, and ultimately helped stall the bill. Why? MAS Opposes State Bill to Remove Residential FAR Cap:

The Bill would allow for significant new bulk in New York City’s high-density residential neighborhoods, especially Midtown and Lower Manhattan, but also the avenues in Manhattan south of 96th Street, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Queens waterfront. These neighborhoods are zoned for the maximum residential density currently permitted (R10 or R10 equivalent districts). If the residential FAR cap is removed, the City will look to upzone many of these areas to increase density, facilitating the production of more affordable housing under MIH. Adding new levels of density to what are some of the country’s most populated districts could overburden the city’s stressed infrastructure network and crowd out light and air for neighboring properties and public spaces.

MAS is concerned that the Bill will lead to the preference for residential development in mixed use districts, as residential use commands a much higher price per square foot, compared to other uses. This could work against the City’s stated goal of building new commercial uses in many of these high-density, mixed use districts. On a related note, the City has expressed interest in expanding Landmark Transfers district-wide in East Midtown; it is unclear the impacts the Bill will have on this market.

I don’t fully agree with this reading of the effects of this bill, but I am sympathetic to the development pressures this would unleash. Any further densification past R10 or equivalent districts should really come with methods to reduce abject speculation (some from foreign capital looking to hide or launder the source), reduce inequality, and add housing which isn’t aimed at the super-rich.