March 25, 2017

"Getting There" - Is Uber Playing Fair ?

It looks like the fate of Uber (and Lyft, the other popular ride sharing service in CT) will be decided in Hartford in a lobbying war, not in the competitive marketplace.

In the 3 years since Uber launched in Connecticut it’s enjoyed strong growth, now using 9000 drivers who carry hundreds of thousands of passengers annually.  Full disclosure:  I am one of those customers and am very happy with their service.

I tried Uber after getting sticker-shock for the “black car” limo fees to go to NY airports: over $180 one way from my home to JFK vs $80 by Uber.  Mind you, the rides are different:  the limo is a real limo, but the Uber X is some guy’s personal car.

The limo driver has a commercial driver’s license and has undergone extensive screening and drug testing.  Uber screens its drivers but now will consider non-violent felons to join their fleet (and I’m OK with that… everyone deserves a second chance).

The limo driver has tons of insurance.  The Uber X driver is covered by Uber’s policy when he’s carrying a passenger.  CT law says that taxis and limo’s must undergo extensive safety inspections each year.  The Uber X driver doesn’t.

But if you have a problem in a taxi or limo, who do you complain to?  All cars for hire in Connecticut are regulated by the state DOT and we know how responsive they are to public complaints.  But if you have a bad Uber ride you can complain immediately using their app.  I have done that, on rare occasion, and got an immediate response… and a small refund.

There’s a big difference between a shiny limo and a beat-up taxi.  Local taxis tend to be older and in pretty bad shape.  Their drivers are rarely the owners, so what do they care about the condition of the vehicle?

Uber takes heat for their “dynamic pricing” model where rates go up with demand.  Need an Uber during a bad storm?  You’ll pay more to incentivize drivers to stay out on the road.  But taxi meters know no “surge pricing”.

Neither driver is making a lot of money.  One study pegged Uber-X drivers to an average $15.68 an hour.  And Uber prides itself on its no-tipping model, though I always tip for good service. These folks are just trying to make a living.

But if you believe recent testimony in Hartford, the taxi industry in this state is on the verge of collapse. They say they can’t compete with Uber and Lyft if they can’t have a level playing field of regulations.  And I think they make a good point.

Is it fair that Uber and Lyft pay no state sales tax?  Is it fair that out-of-state Uber drivers can pick up Connecticut passengers, but CT drivers have to return empty from NYC runs?  Is it fair that CT taxi and limo drivers are held to a much higher safety, licensing and screening standard than the college kid driving his Toyota for Uber on weekends?

Uber tells me all these issues are up for grabs as they negotiate with lawmakers in Hartford.  For three years Uber has been able to kill bills that would have regulated their industry, once hiring a lobbyist for $20,000 for a single day to thwart an unpopular bill.  I guess even lobbyists have “surge pricing”.

I like Uber (and Lyft) and hope they survive.  But I also like reliable and affordable taxis and black cars and think they are over-regulated.  Let’s level the regulatory playing field and allow competition to see who serves customers best.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 20, 2017

"Getting There" - The Secrets of the George Washington Bridge

It’s the bridge we love to hate.  Congested, expensive ($15 toll) and nowhere near as modern as the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the George Washington Bridge is best to be avoided, but often you can’t.

The “GW” was not the first New York City bridge designed to cross the Hudson River.  Back in 1885 there were discussions about building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at 23rd Street.  Tunnels proved a better idea in 1904.

By the 1920’s it was automobile traffic that needed access and designers conceived of a double deck, 16 lane wide roadway (with an additional 12 tracks for railroads on the lower level), crossing at 57th Street.

But it was in 1927 and farther uptown that construction finally began on the George Washington Bridge, crossing from the NJ palisades to 179th Street.  The $75 million single-level bridge opened in 1931 with six lanes of traffic, widened by another two lanes in 1946.

Initially the span was to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise, but a naming campaign by school kids ended up honoring our first President.

Fortunately, the bridge’s designers had planned for future growth and in 1962 the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” section of the bridge was opened, increasing capacity by 75%.

If you’ve ever wondered why trucks are only allowed on the upper level, think post 9/11 terrorism fears.

Unless you see the bridge from the Hudson River, it’s hard to take it all in.  Highway approaches from the east and west don’t give you much perspective.  And it’s hard to play sightseer when you’re coping with all that traffic. 

Original plans called for the bridge to be clad in concrete and granite, but the open criss-cross girders and bracing are much more elegant.  Though we take it for granted, the GW is recognized by architects as one of the most beautiful bridges in the word.

In its first year of operations the bridge carried 5.5 million vehicles.  In recent years the counts exceed 100 million per year.  While vehicles pay tolls, there’s one way to cross the bridge for free:  by walking.

While offering great views, the bridge’s pedestrian walkways have a dark side.  In 2012 they were the scene of 43 attempted suicides, 18 of them successful.

Though motorists never see it, the bridge also has its own bus terminal on the New York side, sitting astride the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx) serving 1000 buses and some 20,000 passengers each day.  Officially known as The George Washington Bridge Bus Station, the terminal is undergoing a $180 million renovation.

The bridge itself is also getting a facelift.  In 2011 the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace 529 vertical suspender wires holding up the roadways.  At the same time lanes on the upper level will be closed on the overnights to allow replacement of steel plates on the surface.

A great time to cross the bridge is on important civic holidays, including President’s Day, when the world’s largest free-flying American flag is displayed on the New Jersey tower.  Measuring 90 feet in length and 60 feet wide, the flag weighs 450 pounds.

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

March 15, 2017

"Getting There": Free Parking Isn't Really Free

Our love affair with the automobile depends on one thing:  free parking.  After driving on our “free” highways, we have to park someplace, and we all hate to pay for the privilege.  It’s as if there’s some constitutional right to free parking.

But free parking is actually expensive and paid in more than just dollars.

The industry standards setting group known as the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) has defined 266 different types of businesses and has determined the amount of nearby parking they require.  So when your local Planning & Zoning Commission is looking at proposals for, say, a new restaurant, they consult the ITE manuals on what parking would be needed.

Mind you, a fast food joint like a McDonalds will require less parking than, say, a fancy steakhouse, given the number of patrons and how long they stay there.  But when it comes to the rules of parking, we’re talking about more than restaurants.

Consider convents. For whatever reason the ITE’s “bible” says religious convents must have one parking space for every ten nuns or monks in residence.  Hello?  They’re in a religious retreat!  They’re not going anywhere!  Wouldn’t it be smarter for the convent to be able to use its land for better purposes than an empty parking lot, like growing its own food?

Or how about hotels?  Their parking regulations are based on the assumption that they are sold out, something that may not happen very much.  Wouldn’t it be easier for the hotel to make special arrangements on those sold-out nights than have acres of asphalt baking in the sun most of the year?

Drive up the Boston Post Rd and see the bitter fruits of this short-sighted planning.  Thanks to zoning regulations a lot of big-box stores devote 60% of their land to parking and 40% to the stores themselves.  Just think of what that means to how they price things.  Isn’t it any wonder that Amazon can compete on price?

Awhile back I drove through New Britain where I once lived.  I hardly recognized the downtown with its empty stores and sidewalks next to a ten storey parking structure.  They “built it”, but nobody came.

If you look at the communities with the liveliest downtowns you’ll see people, not cars.  People attract people as they go into shops, walk along and window-shop.  It’s pedestrians we want, not parking lots.

UCLA’s Donald Stroup wrote a great book, “The High Cost of Free Parking”, and made his point with a tale of two cities:

A decade back both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new downtown concert halls.  LA’s included a $10 million, six storey parking structure for 2100 cars.  But in San Francisco, they built no additional parking, saving developers millions. 

In LA after a concert the music-lovers scurry to their steel cocoons and drive away.  But after a show in San Francisco, patrons leave the concert and stroll the streets, spending tens of thousands of dollars in nearby bars, restaurants and bookstores.  Guess which city’s economy has benefited most from its investment in the arts.

The buzzword these days in Harford is TOD, Transit Oriented Development.  By putting stores, mixed use office buildings, housing and amenities near train and bus stops, people will use mass transit to get there instead of their cars.  That doesn’t mean we don’t need parking at train stations.  But even a parking structure can have stores at street level.

City planners need to remember that human beings come with two legs, not just four tires.  

Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

March 10, 2017

"Getting There" - Finally, Some Good News on Transportation

Does reading this column depress you?  That’s what I’ve heard from a few faithful readers. 
But in opining on transportation issues my goal is not to bum you out but to get you thinking. So this week, just to cheer us all up a bit, I’m only going to comment on good news.  (Trust me, it’s taken awhile to accumulate these cheerier dispatches, but here goes.)

FAST(ER) TIMES AT THE DMV:   A friend of mine who runs a limousine company reports he recently went to the DMV fully expecting to waste a day on paperwork but got out of there in record time.  Given the horror stories last summer of long lines and never-ending computer problems, that is good news.

FOOD TRUCKS AT THE STATION:      When the Fairfield Metro station was built on the Metro-North line it was supposed to be part of a P3 (public-private-partnership) complete with offices, a hotel and full passenger amenities.  But the private company lost its financing, leaving CDOT to build the station which ended up with no waiting room or bathrooms, not even porta-potties.  As consolation the CDOT is now looking to bring food trucks into the parking lot to serve commuters.  Care for an empanada with your morning coffee?

WALL STREET NORWALK:        As “the train guy” I thought I knew everything about the New Haven Railroad.  But until a reader in Norwalk told me, I never knew there used to be a train station in the old downtown at Wall Street.  Efforts are underway to rejuvenate that station, situated as it is next to 2000 new housing units, the bus station and the under-utilized Yankee Doodle garage.  The project won’t be an easy sell as CDOT says it’s not interested because the Wall Street station is only a mile from the South Norwalk station.  Funny… they didn’t offer that as an excuse when Gov Malloy promised Bridgeport a new $300 million Barnum train station just a mile from its downtown station.

DONALD TRUMP LIKES TRAINS:         Recently our new President met with a group of airline CEO’s, regaling them with promises to rehab old airports and streamline air traffic control.  But he also used the occasion to lament the lack of high speed trains in America. “You go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place,” Trump said.  It remains to be seen if Trump will keep his campaign pledge to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure or how much of it will go to rail vs roads, but it seems our new President is pro-trains.

HIGH SPEED TRAINS IN CT:      Much has been written about the Federal Railroad Administration’s plans to build a high-speed rail line along the Connecticut coast.  But fuzzy drawings of potential routes along (or atop) I-95 have given local mayors and selectmen a lot of concern.  Last week I was invited to attend an FRA briefing in Darien where many of those fears were lessened.  The FRA says it doesn’t know where it will build these tracks.  And it may all be moot, given opposition by our Governor, the Commissioner of CDOT and most of our Congressional delegation to the plan which would require state approval and funding to move forward.

So, there you go.  Good news, or at least hopeful signs of improvement on the transportation front.  What do you see in your daily commute?  Any rays of sunshine? 
Send your comments by e-mail or post on social media and let’s keep the conversation going with news both good and bad. Just follow the hashtag #GettingThereCT

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media


Enjoying the heatwave this summer?  The electric utilities sure are.  And just wait ‘til you get your next bill.   They’ve been warning us...