September 28, 2020

"Getting There" - Carless in Connecticut

 When you think of the AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, you probably conjure up thoughts of senior discounts, health insurance and retirement.  So it might surprise you to learn that they’re also actively engaged in driver safety and promoting access to mass transit.  The statistics on these issues they shared with me are quite interesting.

By 2025 a quarter of all drivers in the US will be over age 65. And while they are involved in more accidents per capita than younger adults, they are far safer than teens.  But over age 70, traffic fatalities increase with age; by age 85, drivers have probably outlived their ability to drive safely.

Every year some 600,000 adults stop driving.  But because seniors make 90% of their trips in private cars, either driving or as passengers, what happens next?

When seniors stop driving it impacts more than their mobility:  it can also affect their health.

Seniors who stop driving make 15% fewer trips to the doctor.  They can’t get out to shop as much.  They isolate socially, which can lead to depression and a downward spiral in health.

Even before their kids take away their car keys, seniors self-regulate their time behind the wheel.  Maybe they avoid highway driving or traveling at rush hour.  And who likes driving at night?

Living in the suburbs, 80% of seniors have their homes in car-dependent neighborhoods.  Some 53% of those areas don’t have sidewalks and 60% are not within a ten minute walk of a transit stop, assuming they can still walk that distance.

That’s why AARP is making senior mobility a national issue.  And the firm’s Associate State Director for Connecticut, Anna Doroghazi, is becoming a frequent speaker and lobbyist in Hartford.

“We are all going to have to be more involved in transportation issues,” she told me.  And her group’s support for pedestrian safety legislation is just the start.

“We want everyone to think about building ‘livable communities’ where people don’t need a car but can walk or catch a free ride to their nearby services.  And if that’s good for (your mobility) at age 80, it’ll also be good for you at age 8.”

Remember… it’s not just seniors who can be car-less.  Think of those with special needs who can’t drive or low income residents who can’t afford to… not to mention Millennials who are said to have no interest in car ownership.  How do they get around?

The “Carless in Connecticut” are probably familiar with catching Metro-North to go into New York City.  But do they have access to or know anything about local bus service?  Or ParaTransit? Or MicroTransit, on-demand services?

Local social service agencies are doing a better job of giving their clients mobility options.  And the amazing folks at The Kennedy Center have a great “Travel Training” program to help the disabled, both physically and emotionally, build confidence about riding the bus.

It’s not the cost of bus fare that dissuades seniors from riding.  It’s not knowing where the bus stops are, when they run, the lack of a shelter and, yes, probably a fear for their safety. Plus, not all buses kneel making front door access a challenge.

But kudos to the AARP for embracing this issue.  Their advocacy for seniors should bring benefits to us all.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 12, 2020

"Getting There" - Why Does Red Mean Stop and Green Means Go?


Do you ever wonder why our stoplights designate red as stop and green as go?  Me too!  In fact, it was my daughter’s question on this very matter that inspired me to do some historic research.

In the 1840s the British railroads adopted a flag, lamp and semaphore signal system where red meant danger, white meant safety and green indicated proceed with caution.  They took their inspiration from early industrialization where factory machines used red to indicate the equipment was off and green when turned on.

But when the red glass lens on one signal lamp dropped out of its socket, showing a white light which caused a rail collision, they opted for yellow instead.

Traditionally red has evoked danger and green, a more calming influence.  But it was optical science that reinforced the choice.

Red has the longest wavelength in the visible spectrum and is less likely to be interfered with by other light sources in what’s known as “light scattering”.  Think of fog or dust in the air. The red light penetrates best.

By the 1860s traffic conditions in London prompted officials to seek a way of controlling horse-drawn carriages with a signal system and opted for the railroad scheme of color-coded semaphores and lights controlled by a policeman, often perched on a raised kiosk in the middle of the intersection.

You can credit American policeman William Potts for the invention of the first traffic lights in Detroit in 1920.  But they were still sequenced by an officer making traffic control expensive.  A timer system was introduced to sequence the flow but there was also a system activated by sound.

A microphone was installed on the light pole and when a car approached it would honk its horn and the light would turn green… but just for ten seconds to allow that one car to get through.  You can see the problem that was going to create.

In 1935 the Federal Highway Administration standardized all national driving rules including a requirement that stop lights include red, yellow and green signals.

Today we use not only timers but some sophisticated measuring devices to sequence traffic lights including inductive loops.  You’ve probably seen signs of  them, buried in the pavement, as you pull up to an intersection,.  They measure the metal in cars as they drive over them, allowing the system to know that a car is there waiting for a green signal.

Even the traffic lights themselves have improved.  They now measure either eight or twelve inches in diameter and must be visible in every lighting condition.  The older incandescent bulbs that illuminated them use to burn at 175 watts and needed constant replacement.  Now they’re being replaced with high endurance LED lamps which give as much light but only require 10 – 25 watts of electricity.

At many Connecticut intersections there are also sensors on the light poles detecting the strobe lights or special radio signals emitted by emergency vehicles, giving them the right of way.

To help the 13 million Americans who are color blind, stoplights are always arranged with red on top and green on the bottom.

Given the sophisticated technology and engineering time spent on designing a stoplight system for an intersection, they’re not cheap.  A fully equipped setup can cost between $250,000 and a half-million with an annual maintenance cost of $8000.

 Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

September 05, 2020

"Getting There" - Pandemic & Parking


There’s another part of our transportation network being seriously affected by COVID-19 beyond our roads and rails:  parking lots.

Parking is something we take for granted, giving us access to rail stations, shopping and offices.  It’s hardly glamorous, but the parking industry represents an $11 billion business nationwide, one third of it privately owned.

In Connecticut most rail station parking is owned by the Connecticut DOT but administered by the local towns, each of which sets its own rates and terms.  The money collected from commuters is supposed to be spent on station upkeep and amenities while the state takes its share.

Pre-COVID, the demand for rail station parking was so high that some Fairfield County towns had five-year waiting lists for annual permits.  Now those lots are as empty as the trains that serve them.

That’s a further strain on already tight Town budgets but a relatively small loss for CDOT compared to their hemorrhaging of money in other areas.

Office parks are similarly impacted, their bucolic but near-empty offices now surrounded by a sea of empty asphalt.  All of which is leading planners to rethink the short and long-term future of parking overall.

To encourage residents to visit downtown restaurants and merchants cities like Stamford offered three hours of free parking at city owned lots in July. But while that helped struggling local merchants, it’s not an offer that can be expected to last forever.

At some Walmarts in New Jersey the megastore chain is offering free drive-in movies in their lots this month.  Some Connecticut towns are doing the same thing locally.

In New York City great swaths of street parking on the city’s 6000 miles of streets have been converted to outdoor dining for nearby restaurants:  great in the summer, but in the fall will we really want to wear parkas and hats to munch on our pizza al fresco?

And according to some estimates, the loss of parking, parking tickets and such will cost NYC government something like $590 million this year.  That’s real money and would pay for a lot of teachers.

At the airports, private lot operators like Parking Spot used their empty spaces to store cargo, construction equipment and unneeded rental cars.

Assuming a vaccine and eventual suppression of the pandemic, most planners think that changing work patterns will mean fewer trips to “the office” and more time spent working at home.  How will that impact parking demand… and pricing?

Given its limited availability (and increasing demand as commuters revert to cars from trains), parking in cities will still be in demand.  Even though only 10% of midtown Manhattan’s workforce is back in their offices, parking in that area still costs about $500 a month.  Some workers are lucky enough to have those costs subsidized by their bosses… but again, for how long?

But all of this pales in comparison to the story of the savvy couple in Park Slope Brooklyn, who in 2005 purchased two “car condo” parking spaces in a nearby garage for $45,000 each.

They used one of the spaces for their family car and rented out the other for $600 a month, pocketing a $310 profit each month.  In 2016 they sold that extra parking space for $285,000. 

It’s all about supply and demand.


Posted 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...