Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bike-share: Curse of the Wobbly Tourists?

The Washington, DC region is a natural magnet for tourists. During Cherry Blossom season, it usually feels more like a black hole: the tourists get sucked in and never seem to leave. Traffic deteriorates from awful to appalling, as thousands of visitors try to navigate expressways and streets where signage is an afterthought. Metro groans under the burden, as hapless first-time patrons who have never ridden a subway try to figure out how much they need to put on a farecard, and then how to put that card in the gate. Now you can add bicycles to this mix thanks to the relatively new Capital Bikeshare program. Bikesharing programs like this allow users to rent a bike at an automated vending site and return it at another such site. In some communities, including my own, this has led to a fear of an onslaught of wobbly tourists, meandering down the middle of the street as they bike from one attraction to the next.

This leads to an interesting question: does a bike-share result in a net increase in congestion, particularly in tourism centers? One way to look at that is to check whether the accident rate increases once more bikes are out on the road. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments ran an analysis and found only a slight increase in the number of bike-related accidents could be expected. You would expect this if all other factors stay the same (number of cars, number of pedestrians, number of badly-driven taxis, etc.). However, the introduction of bike-share could be reducing the use of some of these other modes.

Consider the Boris Bike. This is the popular term for the Barclays bike-sharing scheme in London. “Boris” refers to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London under whose watch the system debuted. Mayor Johnson is so enthusiastic for this project that he has publicly stated that he believes the bikes “will transform the look and feel of our streets and become as commonplace on our roads as black cabs and red buses.”

Boris Bikes in London- photo courtesy of Stephen Craven
Who’s using these bikes? Often, it’s commuters who have taken mass transit into London, but still need to travel a small distance to get to their destination. In the words of Boris Bikes’ millionth user, they “are perfect for taking me the last mile to work.” Before the bike-share program began, a user like this would have had to walk or take a cab. Worse still, from a congestion and pollution point of view, he might have skipped transit altogether and taken his car into town. If you lived in London, what would you prefer he did? Now, what would you prefer if you lived in Alexandria, VA?

Granted, that’s a commuter example. A tourist is a different creature. They are persistently lost, indecisive about direction, and prone to come to a standstill while trying to decipher street signs. Without bike-share, they will be prone to pulling their personal cars out of hotel parking garages and exhibiting these behaviors while inside a metal machine weighing nearly a ton.

Why won’t they simply walk? Well, try walking a mile in a hot July on a DC area street. An air-conditioned car will be awfully tempting, even if it takes an absurd amount of time to get to the destination, and then find a place to park that doesn’t require a second mortgage. With a bike, you get where you’re going quicker and generate your own breeze.

Those who oppose bike-share might accept this logic, but they will still point to the finances. According to US News and World Report, bike-sharing schemes typically aren’t profitable. But when was the last time you heard of a transit system or, for that matter, a highway program being profitable? The key question is whether bike-share constitutes an outsized burden on the taxpayer, and the answer is no.

Capital Bikeshare in Washington is very nearly at an operational break-even point, with the federal government chipping in for the initial equipment costs. That’s better than most transit systems. It’s certainly better than the federal highway trust fund, which is supposed to be funded by gas taxes but is now kept going by transfers from the general fund.
So, is bike-share a bogeyman to be feared by unwary residents of historic areas? I would say no, but that depends on how the residents drive. Jabbering on an iPhone while behind the wheel of an enormous SUV is probably not a good idea when passing a tourist on a rental bike. But then again, when is that sort of behavior ever a good idea?

Update: Earlier this week in the Washington Times, columnist Charles Hurt wrote a denunciation of the bike-share program in Washington, DC. Perhaps the most telling remark was when he stated that:
...across the street from my house on Capitol Hill is a loud, clanging “Capital Bikeshare” docking station. It is one of the locking ports for those fat, red communal bicycles you see peddled all over town by commune enthusiasts. (Say that fast, and it sounds like you are saying “communists.”)
This led to a general attack on the cost to the taxpayers of the system. Predictably, he did not compare this cost to the bill taxpayers must foot for the roads he drives around on. There's no such thing as free transportation, any more than there's such a thing as a free lunch.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Airport That Ate Atlanta

Photo courtesy of Craig Butz

Have you ever been through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL)? If you’ve ever boarded a plane, the answer is almost certainly yes, accompanied by an audible groan. In fact, it’s a common saying in Georgia that when you die, you can’t get to heaven, or hell, without making a connection there. What began as a small airfield of 287 acres on the site of an abandoned racetrack is now 4700 acres and still growing, rather like its cumbersome name. Parts of the neighboring communities of Hapeville and College Park now lie under its runways, while some neighborhoods are devoid of homes thanks to noise mitigation measures.

Just this month, a $1.4 billion international terminal expansion opened.  It’s the third international concourse to be built here: the first one, built in 1980, now houses Concourse T; the second was Concourse E, built for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Presumably, in 16 years, they’ll build another one.

On the international terminal’s opening day, the Georgia DOT unveiled signs on the surrounding expressways alerting unwary travelers to the fact that if they wanted to fly internationally, they had to take an entirely different interstate, I-75, to get to the correct terminal. I-85, which had been the main access route for decades, was relegated to the domestic terminal’s driveway.  This airport now had entrances near two entirely different cities, College Park and Mountain View, and those entrances were over two miles apart.
That’s one big airport, but is it too big? Sure, it can handle nearly 1 million flights per year, but does that make it convenient? In a word, no.

Compare the time it takes to get from an entry point to the departure gate at ATL versus a smaller airport like Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), another strong contender for the title of most cumbersome airport name. I have personally tested this (unwillingly) and found that it can take an hour to get from the rental car center to my departure gate at ATL. The journey requires getting on not one, but TWO people movers. At DCA, the same sort of trip takes about 30 minutes to complete. It only requires the use of an elevator and moving sidewalk. If you were flying to a city like Charlotte, which nearly midway between ATL and DCA and a short flight from both, which airport would you prefer to use?

What allows DCA to keep its small size and not be expanded to the same size as the urban core it serves? It isn’t a distance issue brought on by the perimeter rule, which restricts most flights to 1250 miles. Nor for that matter is it the lack of numerous international flights. Most passengers fly domestically.  It’s the lack of multiple, lengthy runways.  That puts a capacity cap on flights, which inevitably opens up space for competition to short-haul destinations. That competition doesn’t come from Dulles Airport, located far out in the western suburbs, nor does it come from the distant Baltimore/Washington International  Thurgood Marshall Airport (What is it with these cumbersome airport names?). It comes from rail, namely Amtrak.
Yes, poor under-appreciated Amtrak competes with airlines serving DCA and has captured over 50% of the market for travel to destinations like New York City. A traveler can board an Acela Express in Washington’s Union Station and reach New York’s Penn Station in less than 3 hours.  Compare that to a shuttle flight from DCA to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and remember to factor in the time to get to the airport and through security, the hour-long flight, and the taxi ride from LaGuardia into Manhattan

So, what should a thriving city do? Build an airport that’s actually bigger than its central core, as Atlanta did, or keep the airport at a manageable size (for humans, at least) and create rail options for short distance travel, as in Washington? If you’re dragging a heavy suitcase, you will probably prefer the latter.