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Transit


Instead of buses that drive over traffic jams, let's just not have traffic jams

A video of a bus that skirts traffic congestion by literally driving over cars has made its way around the internet this week. It's a bold idea, but it raises the question: Why simply deal with congestion when we can just get rid of it?

Chinese engineers debuted a scale model of the Transit Elevated Bus at last week's High Tech Expo in Beijing. The vehicle would carry over 1000 passengers, and effectively form a tunnel above cars, moving forward regardless of what's happening below.

Other purported perks of the "straddle bus" include that it would have its own right of way (the un-used air above the cars), and that drivers couldn't get stuck behind it—sensors would alert drivers if they drift too close to the bus, or if their vehicle is too tall to travel underneath it.

But is this really worth building? And would it really help streets function more efficiently? While it might first seem like the elevated bus would solve the problem of congestion, this idea is implicitly treating congestion as though it's here to stay, and that we might as well just try to work around all the cars on the road rather than find ways to give people other ways to travel.

Traffic jams aren't a given

The thing is, congestion isn't guaranteed; it's far more fluid than it appears, and it comes and goes depending on how we manage traffic.

This is evidenced by the growing list of cities that have started getting rid of their highways—even when some predict chaos and gridlock because there won't be as much space for cars, things work out just fine.

Locally we're seeing the same with road diets and roads that have gotten or will get bike and transit lanes.

We don't need the straddle bus to get rid of congestion. The solution already exists: Rather than building an eight-lane highway and running a futuristic moving tunnel with seats on top over it, let's just give two of those lanes to regular buses and watch congestion go down.

We already have the technology we need

It can sometimes be far too easy to forget about the tools we already have at our disposal, instead pushing for new inventions and technology to revolutionize how we travel. The hyperloop will supposedly get us across California in 30 minutes, and Personal Rapid Transit will apparently be devoid of all the pitfalls that doomed the Columbia Pike Streetcar.

But we already have what we need. We can build bus lanes and bike lanes, and do more to encourage people to drive less rather than give them options for driving more. We don't have to become the Jetsons to solve the problem.

Transit


West of Union Station, no overhead streetcar wires

When (and if) DC extends the streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, it almost certainly won't use overhead wires, except at stations. Connections in the stations' canopies will charge supercapacitors for power, according to the latest plans.


Those wires? They won't be farther west. Photo by Dan Malouff.

This is part of the information the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present at a meeting Tuesday night and which we got an exclusive early look at. Earlier, we talked about how using almost entirely dedicated lanes was a new (and better) option.

DDOT has also been studying power systems. Wires were banned in the part of DC originally designed by Pierre L'Enfant during the old streetcar days, so streetcars used "plows" that ran in grooves in the ground. These systems were very failure-prone, and modern technology can do better.

On H Street, the streetcars now use overhead wires, a tried-and-true (and not so ugly as all that) power system. However, federal planners and local preservationists have opposed wires on major "viewsheds" and, if the streetcar ever crosses the National Mall, there as well.

A possible solution is a hybrid system, where the streetcar connects to wires in some places but runs on batteries elsewhere. Jamie Henson, who's in charge of the Union Station to Georgetown study, and his team at DDOT believe that the technology is fast reaching the point where the wires only need to be at the stations themselves.

Under the plan DDOT is currently studying, the "wires" would be "rigid catenary" that look like they're part of a station canopy. When a streetcar pulls into a station, its pantographs would contact these canopy elements and start drawing power.

How the power would work

Charging batteries is slow, but supercapacitors can charge very fast. The streetcar could charge the supercapacitors in 20-30 seconds, Henson said, which can include some of the time the streetcar is finishing pulling in or starting to pull out. The supercapacitors then would more slowly discharge into the batteries.

The vehicles would also use regenerative braking, which charges the batteries when a vehicle brakes. There could also be wires where the streetcar line is underneath a roadway like the Whitehurst Freeway or Washington Circle.

According to an analysis by the project team, this would generate enough energy to power the streetcars even when heavily loaded, on a very hot or cold day with heat or air conditioning at full blast.

While this is the leading edge of streetcar technology, said Henson, other cities such as Dallas have hybrid off-wire segments and there are proposals for hybrid systems in Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee. Henson said streetcar technology is building on bus technology, which is slightly farther ahead.

DC is still 3-4 years away from the point of actually ordering more streetcars. Henson said he believes it is "reasonable to expect" the technology would be developed to a sufficient level by that time.

I hope so. Making this project depend on as-yet-unproven technology seems risky. While some people have long been fighting overhead wires, many far more historic European cities have trams with wires and it doesn't destroy their beauty.

It was clear that federal interests wouldn't allow wires across viewsheds (rightly or wrongly), but DDOT could accommodate that with shorter gaps in wires. That puts a lot less demand on a vehicle's batteries and thus demands less of a technological leap. If the tech works, that'd be great, but what if not?

What about the current line?

Hybrid vehicles could use the current wires on H Street/Benning Road and the future eastward extension to Benning Metro (assuming that extension ends up using wires, which is still an open question).

The existing streetcar vehicles wouldn't work on the hybrid line. According to Henson, part of the upcoming work in the Union Station to Georgetown study will include analyzing whether to have some vehicles only run east of Union Station, retrofit them to use hybrid technology, or replace them entirely.

However, this was going to be necessary regardless—full wires to Georgetown was never in the cards. The team seems to have a promising approach, but will have to be very vigilant to ensure that DC takes advantage of current technology, maximizing the benefit, while also guarding against buying cars that turn out to be lemons or investing in technology that leaves the cars stranded.

But if DC chooses dedicated lanes for the extension, that has a big benefit for the wireless technology: Not having to worry about traffic congestion makes it easier to go off-wire, knowing the batteries don't have to have enough power for very long stints in traffic.

Ask for dedicated lanes using the form below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

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Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

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Links


Worldwide links: MTA riding solo

New York's MTA is cancelling its membership in a league of nationwide transit agency, North Korea let outsiders get a look at its metro system, and Denver just opened a rail line to the airport. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Baptiste Pons on Flickr.

MTA, unsubscribed: New York MTA, the country's largest transit agency has cancelled its membership with APTA, the country's largest transit advocacy group. Citing a lack of support on commuter rail and legacy transit issues, the MTA will stop paying its $400,000 a year in dues, which are a huge part of APTA's budget. (TransitCenter)

Riding Dear Leader's Metro: North Korea wants people to see the positive side of the country. Previously, the government only allowed visitors into their two most lavish subway stations, but it recently opened up the line to visitors from the US, who took numerous pictures and video of the capital city's metro. (Earth Nutshell)

Rocky Mountain ride: Denver's commuter rail line to the airport begins service today after 30 years of planning. Local observers believe it will change the way locals think about their city. (Denver Post)

Walkability tradeoffs: When looking for a walkable neighborhood to live in, what are the important things to consider? This column says you should think about how long you plan to be there, whether you'll ever need a car, if you're ok with an older house, and how much solitude you'll want. (Washington Post)

Are we too efficient?: As technology advances and makes life in cities more efficient, from routes we take to groceries we get delivered, there is something to be said for being able to still get lost. Marcus Foth believes that increased efficiency, while good in theory, could lead to surroundings filled with things and places you already knew about, which could deprive us of life's interesting quirks. (City Metric)

Urbanization of people, not capital: African cities are growing so fast that capital hasn't been able to keep up, creating an informal economy based on street vendors subject to extortion. Additionally, dysfunctional property markets are leading to uneven growth and massive traffic jams. More formal institutional structures could support these growing urban places. (Mail and Guardian Africa)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I co-host a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Moovel. This week, we talked about technology and transportation:

Links


National links: Los Angeles' transit fight

Los Angeles County is arguing over how to spend $120 billion on transit, Cuba is not alone in neglecting communities around stadiums (hint: we do it in the US all the time), and Uber's business model doesn't work for everything. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Eva Luedin on Flickr.

LA County pushback: Politicians from more suburban jurisdictions in Los Angeles County are arguing that a recently-released 40-year/$120 billion transit plan puts too much emphasis on downtown LA, and that projects in their districts should have faster timelines for completion. The county requires a super majority on sales tax votes, so the plan's opposition is a real threat. (LA Weekly)

Stadium shame: ESPN broadcasted a baseball game from Cuba, then shamed the country on Twitter for slums just outside the ballpark. People across the United States shot back with images from this country of oft-ignored poor neighborhoods near stadiums. (Boing Boing)

A business model, lost in translation: For everyone except Uber, the Uber model for on-demand delivery apps is faltering. As venture capital funding slows down, there's a greater need to make a profit on these services, causing some to wonder if the business model is viable given the true costs. (New York Times)

Taking a Texas-sized toll: In Texas, tollways were all the rage for a time. But the operator of a major toll road east of Austin recently went bankrupt, and they're showing themselves to be a risky investment because truckers are reluctant to pay fees as high as $33 to avoid downtown rush hours. (Dow Jones Business News)

Filling our congested roadways: During rush hour, millions of seats in cars around the country are unused. In fact 85% of cars on the road have one occupant. Is there a way to use new technology to put this existing capacity to use? (Mobility Lab)

Humans in architecture drawings: Before computers and photoshop, architects had to draw their own human figures for renderings. Architect Noor Makkiya argues that drawing humans made architects more aware of how they fit with designs, and collected 21 drawings of humans by famous architects, like Leon Krier and Le Corbusier. (Fast Company)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I am co-hosting a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Ride Scout. This week, we talk about High Speed Rail and San Francisco's new Transbay Terminal with German Marshall Fund fellow Eric Eidlin.

Links


Worldwide links: Cheap(ish) houses

Cheaper housing is doable, but it's about way more than just construction costs, strict rules are killing Sydney's night life, and a potential light rail line from Brooklyn to Queens. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Hans Drexler on Flickr.

A house, on the cheap: Auburn architecture students have developed a house that costs $20k to build and that, by conventional standards, is very nice. But building costs are only one challenge to affordability; remaining hurdles include formidable zoning codes, trouble securing mortgages, and finding a knowledgable contractor. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

Say goodnight, Sydney: Regulations that restrict alcohol servings and bar hours in some key entertainment districts are killing Sydney's night life. From 2012 to 2015, foot traffic dropped by 84%, and 42 businesses in the night life industry shut down. (Linked In Pulse)

Big Apple transit: New York City is considering a 16-mile light rail line that'd run between Queens and Brooklyn. The Mayor hopes that it will connect places on the waterfront but the idea is getting mixed reviews from residents and pundits. And those on Staten Island wonder when their time for investments will come. (New York Times)

Even on trains, voices carry: Thanks to new technology, it's now less likely that a train operator or bus driver makes an announcement on a transit system, and more likely that it comes from a pre-recorded or even non-human voice. That can mean more consistency, but matters like pronunciation have left some riders unhappy. (Guardian Cities)

Consider the flip side:Do the usual anti-transit suspects make you want to pull your hair out? Jarrett Walker, the author of Human Transit, says its worth considering the good points they make even if they're buried in bad ones. (Human Transit)

Alley cats: Hong Kong's alleyways can be cluttered, messy, smelly... and beautiful. Cleaning them up, says photographer Michael Wolf, can lead to a feeling of "sterilization" that dismisses character and charm. (Smithsonian Magazine)

Quote of the week: "Soon enough, the park could be growing trees from trash and rats would no longer have a buffet of garbage to feast on every night." - Cole Rosengren writing about a future in which vacuum tubes take our compost away. (Fusion)

Education


Some DC schools are betting that personalization can fix education

DC is at the forefront of a movement to make education a more personalized experience, relying in part on technology to tailor learning to each student's needs and interests. The approach promises to ensure that advanced students are challenged and struggling ones engaged, even if they share the same classroom.


Photo from Bigstock.

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others need more help. Teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and some are lost.

While experts have long advised teachers to differentiate instruction so they can reach each student at her level, that takes a lot of training and talent. Some say it's impossible.

Now a different, more personalized approach is gaining ground across the country and in the District. While personalized learning models vary, most rely at least partly on technology to allow students to progress at their own pace, moving on when they've demonstrated mastery—sometimes of content they've chosen for themselves.

Programs that blend traditional and technology-based instruction are now in place at 17 schools within the DC Public School system on a school-wide basis. Many others use the approach in at least some of their classrooms.

And DC's CityBridge Foundation, through an initiative called Breakthrough Schools: DC, has provided funding and technical support to help 13 DC schools devise new personalized learning models. Each school can receive as much as $500,000 over the course of several years.

Evidence on the effectiveness of personalized learning has been scant, and the term embraces so many different models that it's hard to evaluate its success overall. Last year, however, two studies found that some low-income schools using personalized models had positive outcomes on test scores and other measures.

Some personalized and blended learning models could have drawbacks

Personalized and blended learning models have the potential to engage all students without separating them into different tracks, as schools used to do. But there are reasons to proceed with caution.

If kids are allowed to progress at their own pace, many may opt not to challenge themselves. If they're also allowed to choose what to learn, some may not choose wisely. And if each student is studying something different, it's hard to have a group discussion or an exchange of ideas.

And under many blended learning models, including those used at some DCPS schools, kids spend the day rotating between stations in a single classroom, spending a third of their time working at computers.

Students in those classrooms can lose valuable instructional time while making transitions. And in the many classrooms that have only one teacher, the unsupervised students working at computers don't always stay on task.

Even if they do, much of the software currently available has no connection to what students are learning from their teachers. Students may spend hours every week practicing reading comprehension skills rather than acquiring knowledge, an approach that is particularly harmful for low-income students.

Older methods of personalization are worth trying too

Given those possible flaws, we shouldn't lose sight of old-fashioned, low-tech ways of personalizing learning. One would be to have students write about what they're studying, something schools don't often do these days. Struggling students could write a sentence, more advanced ones a paragraph, and others an entire essay.

And then there's the time-honored version of personalization employed by the wealthy: tutoring.

There are logistical barriers to bringing both of these methods of personalization to schools on a large scale, but they're not insurmountable. DCPS has been piloting a writing program that has had encouraging results with students of varying needs and abilities.

And while tutoring has historically been expensive, at least one school has pioneered a low-cost version that has boosted achievement dramatically.

Like tutors, computers can get students to practice skills and give them immediate feedback. But they can't provide the emotional connection that is important in stimulating learning . Nor can they teach students to write well, or possibly to develop the analytical skills that good writing requires.

Of course, the high-tech and low-tech approaches don't have to be mutually exclusive. Used thoughtfully, computers can free up teachers' time to work with students one-on-one or in small groups, building relationships and doing other things only humans can do.

And personalization, if balanced by whole-group activities that create dialogue and a sense of community, is a more realistic approach than assuming that all students are proceeding in lockstep just because they happen to be the same age.

So by all means, let's experiment, judiciously, with these new approaches to an old problem. But at the same time, let's try to find ways to use older pathways to personalization that are tried and true.

An expanded version of this post is available at DC Eduphile.

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