May 29, 2020

"Getting There" - Is Commuting Gone Forever?

Am I going to have to change the name of this column to “NOT Getting There”?

That’s what Governor Lamont says. Post-COVID he predicts the end of daily commuting as we know it.  Lamont told Bloomberg that his New York business buddies tell him they’re saving so much money by having people work from their homes they may cut office space in the city by 30%.

“The old idea of the commuter going into New York City five days a week may be an idea that’s behind us,” Lamont said. “Maybe you have a great job that seems to be geographically located in New York City, you can do it two-thirds of the time from your home in Stamford.”

Or maybe you don’t need to ever go into the city.  Twitter has told its tech workers they can work from home forever, assuming they can stand it.

That means more time with the family and a lot less time and money spent on the train.  If you add up monthly train tickets and station parking, you’re looking at least $500 - $600 a month in savings.

Not only does that leave Metro-North looking at a huge deficit, but also the towns and cities that rely on parking revenue.  And as we are discovering now, during budget-writing time, belts are getting pulled tighter and tighter.

To save money Stamford residents may have to bag their own leaves for collection this fall.  Oh, the humanity of it all!  And Darien is looking to use empty parking lots as tented al fresco dining areas.

But wait ‘til the evacuating New Yorkers hit Fairfield County.  Our media-centric governor told CNBC that “the phones are ringing off the hook at real estate offices in Southern Connecticut.”  More families means more kids in our local schools further straining already-cut budgets.

But what if your New York jobs tells you to come back, even a few days a week.  How are you going to commute?

Probably not by train and subway.  A recent survey showed that 48% of respondents said they would totally avoid mass transit after NY’ers are allowed to leave their homes. 

The New York Stock Exchange has reopened its trading floor, but only to traders and employees who did not arrive on Wall Street by mass transit.  Good luck with that traffic nightmare.

Transitioning to biking or walking to work may be viable if you live in Manhattan, but not if you’re coming from Connecticut. The best (or only other) option will be your car.

So it’s not surprising that a local car wash chain (reopening May 20th) is offering a proprietary 15 minute “No-Vid Fogger Disinfection” treatment for only $54.99, EPA certified to kill 99.99% of the emerging pathogens in your car”.  Yes, you too can stay in the safety bubble of your own car on your drive to work, however long it may take.

You think rush hour on the Merritt or I-95 was bad in the pre-COVID days?  Wait til we see the newly “disinfected” post-COVID commute-by-car crowd hit the roads.  Those highways are already getting crowded and we still haven’t officially re-opened yet.

PS:  If your New York City boss tells you to come back to the office, ask if he’ll also cover your tolls and Manhattan parking costs (about $50 a day).

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media




May 21, 2020

"Getting There" - The Story of UPS

You know those big brown trucks that are keeping us well-delivered during this time of COVID-19?  Well, there’s some interesting history and tech to United Parcel Service, or UPS.

Founded as the American Messenger Company in Seattle in 1907, most deliveries back then were to stores, not customers, and done on foot or by bicycle.  Adding a Model T to their fleet in 1913, the company started serving neighborhoods.  By 1930 the company expanded to most cities in the East and Midwest, adding delivery by airline cargo partnerships to their modes of transportation.

From 1975 to 1982 UPS was headquartered in Greenwich CT and was serving all 48 contiguous states and Puerto Rico.  In 1988 UPS launched its own airline fleet, now the 10th largest in the US and serving 815 destinations worldwide.

In 1991 UPS acquired Mailboxes Etc and re-branded its 5000 independently owned stores as UPS Stores.

When a package enters the UPS system it goes first to the closest hub by truck or train (if less than 200 miles) or by air (if farther).  After an initial sort it then goes to the hub nearest the final destination.

UPS operates airport sorting hubs in Philadelphia, Dallas, Ontario CA, Rockford IL and its largest in Louisville KY, known as Worldport. 

Worldport is a five million square foot complex the size of 90 football fields with 300 plane loads of packages arriving 24 hours a day.  The facility can sort 416,000 packages an hour.  Processing time is about ten minutes per package.  It is heavily automated, boasting 33,000 conveyors covering 55 miles in length.

The packages are then shipped again to the hub nearest the destination and trucked to local warehouses such as the one in Norwalk.

Here’s where more serious technology comes into play with a system called ORIONOn-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation.  The software has 80 pages of algorithms combining maps, customer information, traffic conditions, pick-up requests and package priorities to give each driver the fastest route to complete deliveries.

One of ORION’s time savings tricks is avoiding left hand turns for drivers.  Not only are right hand turns faster but they’re safer.  That’s saved UPS drivers 20 million miles of driving, 98 million minutes of idling and 9 million gallons of fuel a year.

UPS even has its own GPS system giving its drivers detailed information about each destination.  As the driver gets close to the drop-off location the system beeps, telling him to slow down.

When the big brown truck pulls up in front of your house to make a delivery you’ll notice the driver usually stops the engine.  He doesn’t stroll to your door, he jogs.  With hundreds of deliveries per day per driver, it all adds up.

Sometimes the driver needs you to sign to accept the delivery.  Even that involves some amazing tech… DIAD, the Delivery Information Acquisition Devicea 1.3 pound handheld computer that scans barcodes, collects signatures and stores information about each package.  (Delivery signatures are now on hold thanks to COVID-19).

Today UPS is busier than ever but has also suspended its delivery guarantees due to “service disruptions”.  They are not alone in that situation as competitors FedEx and the US Postal Service are also struggling to keep up.

It’s clear that sheltering in place is good for UPS’s business if it can handle the load. In fact, UPS is still hiring new workers.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

May 16, 2020

"Getting There" - The Road Ahead for Rail Commuters

The road ahead for commuters may be less crowded, or maybe more.

One theory has it that, as people gradually return to work, they will shun mass transit out of safety concerns and commute, instead, by car.  That could create problems on our roads if people try to drive five days a week.

The other speculation is that the “new normal” will mean less commuting overall as people have found they can be just as productive from home and will commute less than the normal five days a week.

Work hours may also be staggered, asking employees to go to their jobs every other day to avoid crowding in the office.  And some New York City based companies may opt for adding suburban “satellite office” space, again changing the normal commute.

But for all of these scenarios, Metro-North will be the big loser.

“It will be years, if ever, before ridership gets back to pre-COVID-19 levels,” Catherine Rinaldi, President of Metro-North told me.

Ridership is already down 95% and service has been cut substantially to just one train per hour.  So far, cheaper off-peak tickets are valid on all trains, even at rush hour.  That seems unlikely to change.  Why give potential returning riders any excuse to not come back?

Because Metro-North charges the highest fares of any commuter railroad in the US, fares cover more of the railroad’s operating expenses than on any other railroad.  On Metro-North, 75% of the cost of running the trains is covered by fares compared to only 20% by MBTA in Boston (where fares are heavily subsidized to encourage ridership).

Monthly commutation passes give riders a 50% discount over one-way fares.  But if people aren’t commuting five days a week, monthly tickets won’t make sense (May monthly ticket sales are tiny so far) so maybe they’ll go for ten-trip tickets (still, a 30 – 40% discount over buying single tickets).

The railroad’s parent, MTA, says it is expecting almost $6 billion in lost revenue, a $1.7 billion cut in tax revenue and $800 million in additional costs for employee safety.

The MTA will receive $3.9 billion from the Federal government in aid, but that comes nowhere near what will be needed.

If ridership doesn’t come back strong and fast, the losses will only worsen.

With reduced ridership and fewer trains, the railroad may have to do something more to reduce costs… but layoffs and furloughs are not being considered, I’m told.  The MTA wants to keep those staffers close so they can be put back on trains if demand increases as some hope.

“We will have to be nimble and improvise, depending on how quickly passengers return,” says Rinaldi.

As CDOT is doing with our highways, Metro-North is taking advantage of this lull to accelerate infrastructure repairs.  The Waterbury branch, which has reverted to busing, has seen 5500 railroad ties replaced, bridge timbers upgraded and signal work moving apace.

President Rinaldi gives a big “shout out” to her 6600 employees.  “I’m so proud of their amazing dedication” coming to work and keeping the railroad running.

And to riders, past and future, Rinaldi’s message is simple:  “Thank you for staying home and staying protected.  We want you to come back and we will do everything we can to keep you safe.”

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media



May 09, 2020

"Getting There" - Flattening The Commuting Curve

In the post-COVID-19 world (whenever that may be) commuters will be asking themselves one question:  Is this trip really necessary?

Sure, when the quarantining is lifted and the life threatening virus seems to have passed (at least until it returns next fall), we may look forward to getting back on the train and on the crowded highways. 

But the weeks of not commuting have changed our attitudes toward work and the necessity of travel.  Going forward, I think we will be making that daily trek a lot less often and that will have a profound effect on transportation.

Sure, plumbers can’t telecommute, but knowledge workers can.  And they make up a large portion of southwest Connecticut’s population.  They’ve been working from home just fine in recent weeks.  So they’ll be asking themselves (and their employers) if a daily schlep into their New York City office is really necessary, or if they can continue to work from home two or three days a week.

Being self-employed, I have worked from my home office for over 35 years.  I sure don’t miss the daily grind, nor the office politics, and love my work so I end up doing it six or seven days a week: it’s not a job but a passion. 

When I started my consultancy I didn’t have a computer or even a fax machine. Today, the average home has as much communications gear as at the office.  We don’t need a physical presence “at work” to be working.

We will all be wearing face masks for many months to come any time we leave our homes.  And work meetings won’t involve shaking hands or exchanging business cards.  Business travel?  Not anytime soon.

I have a neighbor who used to make almost weekly flights to London for a single meeting or business luncheon.  That was nuts before COVID-19 and is certainly unnecessary now.

So in an ironic way, this virus might actually be a blessing for commuters.
Our trains and highways used to be crowded because we all bought into an outdated social construct that “work” was something we did from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday, at an office.  Rush hours were called “peak periods”, just like when the virus was at its worst.

Post-COVID-19 we can flatten that commuting curve on the roads and rails. 

Ridership on Metro-North need not peak in rush hours if it can be spread out over the hours or days.  And I-95 need not be a parking lot if people are working from home or staggering their hours.

Parking won’t be as much of an issue if demand drops.  And we’ve already seen New Yorkers opting for walking or bicycling instead of taking the bus or subway.

Less traffic should mean faster delivery times for trucks and shorter commutes for those who must drive.  And we’ll all be burning less fuel, cleaning our air.

Fewer cars on the road should mean a reduction in traffic accidents.  Driving less, our car insurance premiums should go down.

If we’re not wasting time commuting, we’ll have more time for our families, for volunteer work and our personal interests (and health-giving sleep).

As horrendous as this virus has been, it’s given us all a chance to rethink our priorities.  Life is too short to work at a job you don’t like or waste hours a day getting there.

Post-COVID-19 will be a new world for commuters.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


May 05, 2020

"Getting There" - Lamont's Republican Rail Revenge

Our “aw shucks, golly” Governor seems to have a mean streak.

While he probably deserves all the credit he’s getting for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, what he did last week at the Bond Commission seems uncharacteristically mean and vindictive.

Somehow a promised $72 million investment in badly needed replacement rail cars for the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines of Metro-North got derailed as the item was deleted from the agenda. Those lines won’t be getting new cars anytime soon. What happened?

Flashback to July of 2018 when then candidate Lamont stood on camera in front of an empty railroad track and made a campaign promise:

“The trains only come by here not often enough to make a difference.  If we had more train service it would open up the entire (Naugatuck) Valley to economic development… so we’ve got to make it a priority.”

After his election, Lamont’s unveiled his CT2030, $10 billion transportation plan, only to see it detoured in the quagmire of the tolls debate.  But our “transportation governor” isn’t giving up, at least in some areas.

This month the CDOT is accelerating $90 million worth of work on the Waterbury branch line for signalization, Positive Train Control and passing sidings.  With those improvements the long-promised 12 new rail cars for the line could have seen trains run every 30 min in rush hour, every hour off-peak. Imagine what that would have meant for local jobs.

Likewise on the Danbury branch where the old diesel push-pull trains are older than many riders.  Clean, modern trains would have meant better service, adding to employment and boosting real estate values.

Instead, that last minute switch in the Bond Commission agenda on April 16th dropped those branch line cars, instead buying new equipment only for the Hartford Line and Shore Line East.

OPM budget director Melissa McCaw said the amended item reflected insufficient revenue in the Special Transportation Fund (STF).  Governor Lamont agreed, saying “We had to set some priorities”.

Truth be told, it all comes back to tolls. Remember that debate? It seems like a century ago, right?

Is it just by chance that the Waterbury trains run through GOP Minority Leader Themis Klarides’ district? Was cutting that rail car order Lamont’s payback for her opposition to tolls?

Let’s also remember that last June Governor Lamont refused to fund Klarides’ request for a fire training facility in her district, almost taunting her by calling the spending cut an attempt to “prioritize progress”, playing off the GOP’s name for their much maligned alternative to tolling.

But it may be Klarides who gets the final revenge, announcing this week that she won’t seek re-election to the legislature this fall, joining a growing list of GOP long-timers bowing out of the race.  I mean, does anyone really want to run on a ticket topped by Trump?

But the 54 year old Klarides also says “my time in public service is not over” leading to speculation that she will run for Governor, presumably against Lamont, in 2022, assuming she can best Bob Stefanowski to get the Republican nomination.

Meantime riders on the Waterbury and Danbury branches will be riding on old trains for a few more years.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


"Getting There" - Cruise Ships Hit the COVID Storm

Have you ever taken a cruise?  According to that industry, something like 28 million people worldwide took to the high seas last year.  But that still leave 80% of Americans who have never cruised, enjoying the midnight buffets, spas and casinos at sea.

Obviously, cruising has lost its allure since the megaships became epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks, trapping passengers in their cabins for days as some ships searched for a port that would let them dock with their contagious human cargo.

Even before the current pandemic cruise ships were notorious hotspots for simpler bugs like the norovirus which caused “acute gastrointestinal illness”.  It’s hard to share a confined space like a ship without touching surfaces that harbor the virus.

Years ago when we sailed on NCL we practically bathed in hand sanitizer.  You couldn’t board without a hand spritz or even think about eating.  The dispensers were everywhere, compliance was high and we never got sick.

Now, cruising is on lockdown by order of the CDC for at least another three months though it looks like the White House is aiding the ailing industry by shortening the time before they can weigh anchor… assuming they can find passengers.

Because most cruise ships are not registered in the US the operators were locked out of the government’s $2 trillion aid package.  But what’s become of the ships and their crews?

As of this writing there are about 100 cruise ships either docked or floating at sea staffed with 80,000 crew members caught in limbo.  Some of them have contracted the COVID-19 and are sick but can’t be taken ashore.   Most of them are still getting paid, others not.

The onboard entertainment for passengers has been retuned to keep up staff morale.  And the fancy buffets have been replaced with simpler fare as the big ships now need to be resupplied while still at sea.

But what will happen to the cruise industry “after” COVID-19?

It depends mostly on the ship owners and the CDC. Among the recommendations:  eliminate self-service food buffets, sanitize endlessly, increase air filtration for cabins lacking fresh air, constant illness testing for crew and passengers and reduced capacity onboard to allow social distancing.

Even with those measures the question is will the customers come back?  Cruising used to be fun and pretty inexpensive, but the industry’s mishandling of the COVID crisis is the kind of bad PR that will take months or years to overcome.

Among the first to cruise (and fly) will be those who’ve survived the virus and have documentation to prove it (COVID Cards, I call them).  Presumably they’ll be immune to reinfection and won’t be contagious.

But will the ports welcome the ships, especially those coming from the world’s COVID hotspot, the United States?

As travel consultant Peter Greenberg points out, it wasn’t that many years ago that international travelers had to carry a yellow immunization card, signed by their doctors, proving they were up to date on all their shots.  That’s an idea that is sure to return.

There’s a lot hanging in the balance of this industry’s return to business.  We’re talking about thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in business for the US and international ports’ economies.  I can’t imagine all of that disappearing.  At least I hope not.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

BUILDING GREAT (AND REALLY EXPENSIVE) THINGS

Grand Central Madison, the new train station bored into the rock beneath Grand Central Terminal, is finally open.  When it’s fully operation...