How snow exacerbates the weaknesses of suburban road design
A lot of people had awful commutes last night, thanks to snow. And a lot of people had fine ones. One explanation for the difference: Suburban roads are far more susceptible to catastrophic breakdown than urban street grids.
Traffic congestion on snow night. Image from Google.
Snow storms like last night’s highlight how easy it is to completely shut down suburban-style transportation systems. And conversely, how comparatively resilient are more urban systems.
Cities beat suburban areas on snow resiliency in two big ways: Multimodalism and network connectivity.
First and foremost, with transit, walking, and biking more convenient options, cities are simply much less reliant on having clear roads. Metrorail worked like a dream yesterday, and pedestrians had a lovely commute.
It simply didn’t matter how bad the roads got for a significant percentage of DC’s travelers, because they simply weren’t on the roads while they traveled.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
But that’s not all. Even for car drivers, urban street grids are more resilient than road systems focused around large highways, because of how they’re laid out.
The great thing about interconnected grids is that if one street becomes blocked, there’s another perfectly good street one block over. And another one block down.
If a wrecked car or fallen tree or whatever blocks the street you’re on, you just take a different street. There might be some additional turns involved; it might not be quite as direct. But for the most part 28th Street isn’t all the different from 29th Street.
Contrast that with suburban-style systems where all traffic in a particular area funnels onto one big highway. If that one highway becomes impassible, everyone in the area is stuck. Or, at best, they have to drive miles out of their way to find the next big highway.
This illustration shows how that works. If the “Collector Road” gets jammed, people in the top half of the image can still move around. People on the bottom half can’t.
Suburban-style roads vs urban street grid. Image from USDOT.
That’s part of what happened last night. There were a lot of crashes. If they happened on arterial highways with no parallel roads, which a lot of them did, that road would succumb to gridlock.
Urban places aren’t immune, but they’re better off
To be sure, this storm was bad for roads all over the region.
Streets in Northwest DC were just as dangerous as those elsewhere, and DC’s plowing response was bad. And buses were every bit as stuck in it as cars.
But there’s no doubt that people who could travel via Metro or foot had a much better time, and there’s no doubt that drivers who could use parallel streets were able to bypass some of the congestion on arterials.
64 years ago, the world’s first driverless parking garage opened in DC
On December 5, 1951, the world’s first “park-o-mat” driverless parking garage opened on K Street NW, between 14th and 15th Streets. The building doesn’t exist anymore, but this newsreel is a neat look into one of history’s previous attempts at driverless transportation.
The original park-o-mat buildling was just 25 feet by 40 feet, but at 16 floors and with two elevators, it had room for 72 cars.
As downtown DC developed and the city’s height limit began to limit land availability, property values eventually made it impractical to keep using this building as parking. Today, a a normal building full of people replaces it.
Video proof neon clothes don’t stop careless drivers from driving into people
Have you ever seen a traffic safety campaign that reprimands you for not wearing bright colors every time you cross the street? Of course you have. Here’s video proof that’s a load of bollocks.
In this viral video, a careless SUV driver rolls into a neon-clad police officer. There’s no ambiguity as to who’s at fault. The officer was stopped still, in broad daylight, and wearing the holy grail of bright clothes: a reflective vest. The SUV driver simply didn’t stop when he or she should have. Thankfully it all happens at slow speed, so it doesn’t appear the officer was hurt.
But this is a clear illustration of why it’s wrong to lecture pedestrians about wearing bright colors. It’s not reasonable to demand that everyone wear bright yellow every time they’re outside a car. But it is absolutely reasonable to demand that drivers not carelessly drive into people, no matter what anyone is wearing.
Crowdsource safety problems on DC streets with this interactive Vision Zero map
Do you know of a safety problem on a DC street? If so, tell DDOT about it using the interactive Vision Zero map. It allows residents to click a location and type in notes to describe problems.
Image from DDOT.
This new map is part of DC’s Vision Zero Initiative, which aims to eliminate all fatalities and serious injuries in the transportation system.
The map lets you add notations for a wide variety of safety problems. There are separate categories for driver, pedestrian, and cyclist problems, with several options available for each. You can also scroll around DC to see what your neighbors have submitted.
It’s a neat tool. I’ve already submitted a handful of problems.
Most gas stations these days are pretty garish, but gas stations weren’t always so. Check out this vintage 1924 station, from Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park.
Lord Baltimore Filling Station. Photo by the National Photo Company, via the Library of Congress.
This is the Lord Baltimore Filling Station, at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Ordway Street NW. It may not be truly typical of the era, but it’s hard to imagine seeing as sharp-looking a gas station today.
It’s not only the nice architecture that make this notable. It’s also the urban design. This isn’t as great for sidewalk life as a row of main street-style shops, but it’s a building that fronts on the sidewalk. It could be a lot worse.
Do you know of any unusually good-looking gas stations? What makes them interesting?
Washington’s I-495 beltway is a 64 mile long loop. London’s M-25 orbital motorway is 117 miles. They seem big, but they’re practically microscopic next to the greatest ring road on Earth, Australia’s 9,000-mile Highway 1.
Map from the Commonwealth of Australia.
In fact, Highway 1 is the longest single highway in the world. It’s 32% longer than Russia’s Trans-Siberian Highway, and almost three times longer than the longest US Interstate, I-90.
The Australian government created Highway 1 in 1955, by compiling a network of existing local and regional highways under a single banner.
Unlike American Interstates, Highway 1 isn’t fully limited access for its entire length. Near big cities like Sydney or Melbourne it looks like an Interstate, but many sections in rural areas are simple two-lane roads, and some extremely isolated sections are even more basic.
How fast can you go? Map of maximum speed limits around the world
In most of the United States, the maximum speed limit is somewhere between 65 and 75 miles per hour. What about the rest of the world? This map tells you.
Maximum speed limits around the world. Map from Reddit user worldbeyondyourown.
In the eastern US, most states top out with maximum speed limits of 70 miles per hour. Out west, most states allow 75, and a handful go even higher than that.
Texas has the highest speed limit in the western hemisphere, at 85 miles per hour. On the other end of the spectrum, no road in Canada’s province Nunavut has a limit above 45 miles per hour.
Germany’s Autobahn famously has no maximum speed limit, but it’s not the only place in the world to hold that distinction. Australia’s Northern Territory is also speed limit free. But don’t try racing down roads in Bhutan, where the maximum limit is no higher than 45.
Does Maryland’s statewide planning make big projects harder to build?
Maryland Governor’s Mansion. Image from the Boston Public Library on Flickr.
Despite years of work and broad community support to build the Purple Line, Maryland’s new Republican governor-elect may kill the project. Does Maryland’s heavily centralized state-level planning make it particularly susceptible to shifts like this one?
Most US states delegate transit planning to regional or municipal agencies, rather than doing it at the state level. Maryland is unusual. It’s geographically small and dominated by urban areas, and it has a history of governors interested in planning. So the state handles much more planning than usual, especially for transit.
That can be a mixed blessing.
When things go well, it means Maryland directs many more resources to transit than most other states. But it also means transit projects in Maryland are inherently more vulnerable to outside politics.
Maryland’s centralized system is designed under the assumption that Democrats will always control the state government, and therefore planning priorities won’t change very much from election to election. Were that actually the case, the system would work pretty well.
But recent history shows Maryland is not nearly so safe as Democrats might hope. With Larry Hogan’s election, two out of the last three Maryland governors have been Republicans. And they have different priorities.
Of course, it’s completely proper for political victors to have their own priorities. We live in a representative democracy, and we want it that way.
But shifting priorities are a big problem for any large infrastructure projects that take more than one governor’s time in office to complete.
It takes at least 10 years to plan and build something like a light rail line, or a new highway. If every new governor starts over, the project never gets done.
Thus, large infrastructure projects like the Purple Line, Baltimore’s light rail, and even highways like the ICC wallow in uncertainty for decades, shifting back and forth as one governor’s pet project and another governor’s whipping post.
Maryland’s spent literally half a century debating and re-debating whether or not to build the ICC highway.
While many states centralize their planning for highways, so much money automatically flows towards highway expansion that a lot of big road projects inevitably sail through without becoming political issues. Since transit rarely has dedicated funding for long term expansion, transit projects are more likely to become politicized.
And although this problem can happen anywhere, Maryland’s particular system centralizing transit planning under the governor’s office seems to make it par for the course.
When regional or local agencies control more of the planning, they’re less susceptible to the whims of any individual election.
For example on the southern side of the Potomac, where Virginia kept Silver Line planning alive through multiple Democrat and Republican governors, but only managed to actually build it after the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority took over ownership of the project from the state in 2007. After that, the state was involved but not the leader, making the project less of a target for governors or legislators.
Is there a best of both worlds?
The benefit to statewide planning is statewide resources. The Maryland Department of Transportation is much more willing to spend its own money on transit than almost any other state DOT.
While Fairfax County and MWAA had to increase local commercial property taxes and tolls in the Dulles Corridor to build the Silver Line, MDOT leadership meant Montgomery and Prince George’s weren’t supposed to need such schemes for the Purple Line.
Could we find a way to preserve access to the state’s financial resources without putting urban transportation projects at the mercy of voters on the Eastern Shore? Maybe.
Virginia offers a compelling model, with its regional planning agencies like the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. NVTA makes decisions and receives funding at the metropolitan level, and is governed by a relatively stable board rather than one single politician.
Naturally the NVTA system has trade-offs too. For example, NVTA has independent funding streams but doesn’t get to allocate VDOT money. And NVTA is ultimately under jurisdiction of the Virginia General Assembly, which can impose its will any time.
No system is ever perfect, and Maryland wouldn’t have to copy Virginia directly. But something similar in concept might work, especially if it combined regional decision-making with state funding.
Don’t mistake Maryland’s problem as a criticism of planning in general
One common trope among some sprawl apologists and highway lobbyists is that central planning is inherently bad. For them, “central planning” is a code word that really means smart growth and transit planning in general.
Maryland’s reliance on statewide rather than regional-level planning does not prove those pundits right. Without government planning no large infrastructure projects would be possible at all.
Maryland has a specific problem with how it implements its planning, which leaders in the state can practically address without throwing the planning baby out with the bathwater.
Gas is suddenly cheap(er), and the reason is bigger than you think
Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.
Gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in much of the US, and the explanation isn’t the simple seasonal differences that always make gas cheaper in autumn. The bigger reason: US oil shale deposits are turning the global oil market on its head.
How did cheap gas happen?
In the simplest terms, supply is up and demand is down.
Travel drops between the summer travel season and the holidays, and cooler fall temperatures actually make gas cheaper to produce. That’s why gas prices always fall in autumn.
The bigger explanation seems to be that supply is also up, in a huge way. North American oil shale is hitting the market like never before, and it’s totally unbalancing the global oil market. Oil shale has become so cheap, and North American shale producers are making such a dent in traditional crude, that some prognosticators are proclaiming that “OPEC is over.”
It’s that serious a shift in the market.
Will this last?
Yes and no.
The annual fall price drop will end by Thanksgiving, just like it always does. Next summer, prices will rise just like they always do. Those dynamics haven’t changed at all.
Likewise, gasoline demand in China and the rest of the developing world will certainly continue to grow. Whether it outpaces or under-performs predictions matters less in the long term than the fact that it will keep rising. That hasn’t changed either.
But the supply issue has definitely changed. Oil shale is here to stay, at least for a while. Oil shale production might keep rising or it might stabilize, but either way OPEC crude is no longer the only game in town.
Of course, oil shale herf=”http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-10/u-dot-s-dot-shale-oil-boom-may-not-last-as-fracking-wells-lack-staying-power”>isn’t limitless. Eventually shale will hit peak production just like crude did. When that happens it will inevitably become more expensive as we use up the easy to refine reserves and have to fall back on more expensive sources. That’s a mathematical certainty. But it’s not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, oil shale isn’t very scarce.
So the bottom line is that demand will go back up in a matter of weeks, and the supply will probably stabilize, but at higher levels than before.
What does this mean?
Here’s what it doesn’t mean: There’s never going to be another 1990s bonanza of $1/gallon fill-ups. Gas will be cheaper than it was in 2013, but the 20th Century gravy train of truly cheap oil is over.
Oil shale costs more to extract and refine than crude oil. Prices have to be high simply to make refining oil shale worth the cost, which is why we’ve only recently started refining it at large scales. Shale wouldn’t be profitable if prices dropped to 1990s levels. In that sense, oil shale is sort of like HOT lanes on a congested highway, which only provide benefits if the main road remains congested.
So shale can only take gas prices down to a little below current levels. And eventually increased demand will inevitably overwhelm the new supply. How long that will take is anybody’s guess.
In the ultimate long term, oil shale doesn’t change most of the big questions surrounding sustainable energy. Prices are still going to rise, except for occasional blips. We still need better sustainable alternatives. Fossil fuels are still wreaking environmental catastrophe, and the fracking process that’s necessary to produce oil shale is particularly bad. It would be foolish in the extreme for our civilization to abandon the progress we’ve made on those fronts, and go back to the SUV culture of the 20th Century.
There will probably be lasting effects on OPEC economies. The geopolitical situation could become more interesting.