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What Would Ya Do-ooo-oo for a MARTA Card?

January 6, 2014

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So….about the hiatus. I’m deep in mourning for the loss of another Atlanta institution. No need for explanation there. I discovered something today.  A commuter calls me and asks me if there are any transportation options to get from Covington to Atlanta.  The awkward realization that ran through my mind was…

 

1. Drive. The buses don’t go where you live, honey.

 

2. That’s a tad far, isn’t it?

 

In the commuter’s defense, I think it was an honest question due to our crazy commuting patterns in this region.  While Covington may be a very far off exurb of Atlanta, it still is a sort of “commutable” area. After breaking the sad news that there wasn’t any other option than driving the lonely road to Dixieland, I gave her the closest alternatives (i.e. the two Xpress routes in Conyers). This brings up a very valid question.  While I have always lived in Downtown Atlanta for my five plus years of being here, I have never really stopped and thought how the suburbanites and rural dwellers even find out where the nearest bus stop is or what time it even comes.  With today’s technology, you could definitely douse that flame, but what if you’re 53 and haven’t a clue (which I think was this lady’s issue).  

 

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My philosophy in the transportation business is and will always be this: Information should be provided so that even Big Foot knows where he’s going. Not everyone will have access to a smartphone or a computer, so assuming that “the instructions are online at www…” is not a sound business practice.  Even with language barriers, all demographics must be able to understand what and where you are giving service.  GRTA has done a wonderful job with their Park and Ride Lots, which I take great pride in visiting when I’m out in the fields.  MARTA also does their part in guiding drivers from the road to the stations, and Douglas County even went as far to create a Multimodal Center which is the center for all things transit in the West Metro (see pic above).  However, we have a long way to go in providing information to everyone on demand.  We should take these instances where we stop and say, “Where are we?” to think about how we can better relay information to newcomers and lost travelers.  It makes everyone feel more comfortable in the long-run. 

 

Dear Cinncinati

December 3, 2013

In case you were wondering, we’re all watching you. People in Atlanta were watching the live feed of your public hearing yesterday and the whole nation is on the edge of their seats watching the train wreck that is happening before our eyes. But for me, it’s not about failure of transit progress, or the unbelievable embarrassment of Cincy for what would be two failed partially built rail systems, but how the newly electeds are following the current trend of politics and showing a blatant disregard for the will of the people.

In the past few years, Cincy has passed not one, but two referendums in support of the streetcar (2009 & 2011). In a failure of realizing the stakes, streetcar supporters didn’t turn out for November’s mayoral election due to a slate of lackluster candidates, allowing an anti-streetcar candidate to take the ballot with less votes than those passing referendums received. At what point does the will of the people of a city stop mattering?

To be fair, Atlanta has been doing the same thing with yesterday’s passing of a community benefit agreement for the Falcon stadium that the community wasn’t thrilled with and we all know how the city and region feels about the Braves move. And let’s not forget the Senate’s temper tantrum a few months ago as well, shutting down the government because they didn’t agree with something that previous Congresses had already passed. What gives?

Put on your big boy pants, Cincinnati. The turn out yesterday shows that your city wants this streetcar. The rails are in the roads, the maintenance facility under construction, and you just look like toddlers in the throws of some really terrible twos. It doesn’t matter what you want, it’s what the city wants. Your last mayor was legendary; he didn’t take himself seriously, he got down and dirty and hung out in bars with constituents. Follow suit, Cranley.

(PS – while typing that I noticed one slight typo makes the mayor Crankey. In fact, spellcheck recognizes that as the correct spelling. Maybe that’s the reason he’s behaving like this…..)

I’m disappointed in the city of Atlanta and probably not for what you think

November 13, 2013

I’m going to take a moment to beat a dead horse and throw in my two cents as to why I am dismayed and heartbroken over the Braves move. Like the UrbanCommuter, I’m a baseball fan. I regularly attend Braves games, I’ve never had a problem with the seats, the lighting, or the parking because I take MARTA. But the reason why I’m on the “Screw the Atlanta ‘Burbs” bandwagon is this -

Why is our city so damned disposable?

We’re now slated to tear down two perfectly good, multi-million dollar pieces of infrastructure because we changed our minds about what makes an appropriate roof and how much money parking should bring in. The oldest building in this city dates back to 1992.

When you think about the iconic baseball stadiums, the ones that everyone should see before they die, they’re Fenway, Wrigley, or Camden, which, while being a relatively young ballpark, is still older than the Ted and modeled after older, iconic stadiums. “You have got to see Marlins Park,” said no one ever.

Our whole city suffers from this fallacy of tearing stuff down to build new stuff, like, I don’t know, historical churches. You know what is more fiscally sound and way better for the environment? Not throwing away perfectly good stuff.

What’s next? Demolishing the Margaret Mitchell house to build Tara? For once, Atlanta, can we keep something sacred?

An Insult

November 12, 2013

To pretend that the Braves move is anything other than about who could offer up the most money would be foolish.  But for the Braves to mask it behind a series of transportation issues is insulting.  For Mayor Reed to proclaim that it would have cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars is an insult.  It boiled down to several things, but it ultimately was money and image.  The Braves have a terrible TV contract, a must have for any baseball team these days.  See the Texas Rangers, New York Yankees, L.A. Dodgers, and the California of Anaheim of Los Angeles Angels (or whatever the hell they call themselves now).  The Braves made the terrible choice of Peachtree TV.  So to compensate the Braves need parking revenue.  Something they don’t get right now.  The Braves were jealous of the Falcons getting their new stadium, and Cobb County decided that the Braves were more important than dealing with their education woes, because they could stick it to us city folk.  Regardless, the real issues are not the ones presented by any side. 

My issue with this is the “silver linings” that so many parties are proclaiming.  Some may say I am being a curmudgeon on this, I say it’s pragmatic.  Mayor Reed and others think that now this area will get the development that it deserves.  Hard to believe.  You see most people don’t want to live right next to an interstate.  That is why we look at the backside of Dillards at Atlantic Station.  That is why Peachtree and I-85 have an abandoned condo building serving as a billboard.  That is why Spring St. is still an underutilized corridor of fast food restaurants, parking facilities, and the occasional adult club despite being a mere 2 blocks from the most vibrant street in this city.  The draw to redevelop the area around the stadium was dependent on just that, the stadium.  Someone dropped the ball during that process and frankly I don’t care who it was, they dropped the ball.  The Braves leaving the area doesn’t necessarily help the selling point of a bunch of surface lots and abandoned buildings.  Neither does its lack of transit access.  Neither does the 12-14 lanes of interstate that zoom by.  So to pretend that the Braves move suddenly “frees up” this land is insulting. 

To say that the city couldn’t afford to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars to keep them is yet again another insult.  Regardless the city of Atlanta will be spending it.  It will be spent in lost revenue.  It will be spent in the 300,000 regional tourists (only 200,000 short of the Falcons full season attendance) that will no longer be staying in Downtown and Midtown hotels for games.  It will be spent in maintaining the stadium after the Braves leave unless we want it to look like this.  And it will be spent in enticing developers to do something with the land.  Whether that be the removal (I won’t say demolition because there is no way this city, so proud of its Olympic accomplishment, will allow the Ted to meet the fate of a wrecking ball) or relocation, the city will shell out millions upon millions of dollars.  They will spend millions to find a way to preserve Hank Aaron’s momentous accomplishment.  And they will spend millions of dollars to spruce up the area to be developed, whether it be through screening it from the interstate or providing transit access.  This will cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars regardless.  Only now we don’t get the benefit of taxing their revenue.

I am also not a hopeless romantic thinking that the Braves were what kept the surrounding neighborhood afloat in the first place.  They were not well incorporated and the minimal development did nothing to tie them into the community.  But that blame could be put on a lot of people.  What I do know is that the Braves weren’t the primary problem associated with the struggles of the surrounding communities, and their absence will not significantly change things.  Sure they created a traffic logjam for a few hours on game day, but the asthma problem in that the community, that articles such as this one try to elude to are not because of baseball.  They are because of the proximity to a massive interstate.  They are due to one of the highest concentrations of industrial use in the city proper and the consequences of having the world’s busiest airport not far away.  They persist because we cannot come together regionally to solve transportation issues so the only option they have is cars.  The Braves have as much responsibility to that community as the city does, and as we do every time we go to the ballots and only consider our own motives. Saying the Braves are the only one’s not upholding their civic responsibility is foolish and short sighted.  Even if the area is redeveloped, to assume that anything but gentrification would occur would be ignoring reality.  That site will not be used to improve the housing stock of those that need it most.  It will not be used to house the city’s homeless.  It will not work to improve the conditions of Peoplestown.  It will be a massive real estate speculation deal that will propped up by city funds.

The Braves did a good job of supporting their argument by mapping their ticket sales from 2012.  But I would be interested in seeing the shift from say 2000.  You see Fulton County has seen a population growth three times that of Cobb between 2010 and 2012.  It has grown faster than Gwinnett, DeKalb, and Cherokee counties.  It is also growing faster than Dallas County (Texas), Harris (Houston), King (Seattle), Denver (Colorado), and Mecklenburg (Charlotte),  signifying a tremendous shift in moving back towards the center.  While ticket sales may be strongest north of the city, how long will that last?  Wayne Gretzky use to say that he skated to where the puck was going, not where it was at.  Unfortunately I think the Braves missed that opportunity.  This will also mark the first stadium in 30 years to move away from the city center, and one of the furthest away overall, going entirely against the trend that has been so successful for baseball in recent decades.  Of the teams with the highest attendance of 2013, their proximity to downtown was as such:

 1. Dodgers: 1.5 miles

2. Cardinals: .3 miles

3. Giants: 1.65 miles

4. Yankees: 5.5 miles

5. Rangers: 1.5 miles

6. Tigers: .4 miles

7. Angels: 3.25 miles

8. Phillies:  3.25 miles

9. Red Sox: 2 miles

10. Rockies: .5 miles    

The Braves will be nearly 12 miles away.  Given the trend of the other successful teams, this will likely not produce the attendance results they would be hoping for.  The Cardinals once considered a move across the river to East St. Louis and given their current attendance they are probably glad they didn’t, particularly when their demographic and physical urban composition is not all that different from Atlanta’s.  Nearly every one of these stadiums has a few other elements in common.  Efficient transit connections, little direct interstate access, and a limited amount of parking.  In fact the teams with the lowest attendance: Tampa Bay, Miami, Cleveland, Houston, and Kansas City have some of the worst transit access and most abundant parking of all major league stadiums.

This is a shame, and an embarrassment.  Not only damaging to the civic pride of the city but speaks volumes to our region’s priorities.  While as a city we struggle with traffic and many other aspects we cannot challenge the requirement to use tourism dollars to an unnecessary football stadium.  With a county laying off teachers and a teacher/student ratio far exceeding that of other school districts they can find nearly $500 million to support the Braves relocation.  Instead we choose to be cannibals.  We use regional bargaining chips like the Braves and Falcons to dig ourselves into holes so that we can spite a neighboring county.  We pursue development projects like Atlantic Station and what may be the former Braves site, while simultaneously encouraging the languishing poverty in other areas, and the incomplete patchwork that is our central city, creating another automobile dependent community.  We do all of this so we have something new and shiny to point to.   As a region we are given the opportunity to vote for or against one of the most pressing issues: transportation, but we are not given the opportunity to voice our opinion on over $700 million in public money (which will surely balloon to more) to be devoted to unnecessary sports stadiums. Along with who knows how many other hundreds of millions of dollars that will be spent for Cobb to make the necessary transportation improvements and Fulton and Atlanta to try and repair the black eye that will now be the Georgia Braves/Cobb County Commuters, or however else they may re-brand themselves.  The Braves, the City of Atlanta, and Cobb County deserve every bit of criticism they are ultimately receiving. 

Trains, buses, Freddy, and Jason

September 13, 2013

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Happy Friday the 13th! If you’re in to scary movies (and I am) I thought I’d help you plan your transity borrow movie marathon for tonight!

Jeepers Creepers II takes place on a bus, and the Final Destination franchise has both a plane and a couple of bus scenes (specifically movies one and five).

As for train movies, there’s several to choose from: Terror Train with the scream queen herself Jamie Lee Curtis, Night Train, Creep (a subway movie!), Midnight Meat Train, and the simply named slasher film, Train.

And if you want to read tonight, there’s always Ghost Train! by Tony Reevy.

Just remember kids, Jason Voorhies never attacked anyone on transit. Don’t let the bedbugs bite tonight!

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Baby don’t you wanna go?

September 3, 2013

Back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago! Of all the cities I have traveled to Chicago is the one I am most familiar with. With more than half of my family living here Chicago is like a second home to me. Chicago can best be described as a more livable version of New York; Chicago is urban, has great and comprehensive transit, and has a killer lakefront. The layout of Chicago is rather simple, with the Loop at the center and the neighborhoods and suburbs radiating out in a semi-circular fashion, with the lake forming the straight edge of the semi-circle. The loop is the cultural and business center of the city; it is so named because of the loop of elevated transit lines that circles the neighborhood. All streets and transit in Chicago originate here and radiate outwards. Chicago Transit Authority is the main transit system, consisting of buses and a heavy rail transit network. Metra provides an incredible commuter rail network originating at four primary train terminals downtown.

Chicago at its roots is an intermodal city. It was where cargo from the west arrived by train and left by sea…err lake in this case. The primary intermodal hub in Chicago today is Union station. The main hall of union station is a magnificent monument to times past and was featured in The Untouchables. The concourse and ticketing level, however, leaves much to be desired. The waiting area is small, cramped and is an architectural horror straight out of 1971. Union Stations biggest flaw is the fact that it is not a through station and is, in fact, a double terminal station. With only one utility track making a connection to the north tracks and south tracks. It is also a multi-block hike to reach the elevated trains, and with the often windy and cold Chicago weather, that can be a problem. The station is served by Amtrak, Metra, Greyhound, Megabus, and CTA buses.

A cool note about Chicago is that many of the transit stations are very old and are about as opposite as you can get from Marta palaces. They are small, minimal, and often contain a retail component on the street level.

 

Overall Chicago gets a: B

 

Chicago Union Station

 

Cramped waiting area

 

Mixed use CTA stop.

Hyperloops, Pods, Maglevs, and Other Stupid Transportation Ideas

August 15, 2013

Earlier this week Elon Musk proposed his idea for the Hyperloop.   I think it is safe to say it is only a pretty rendering removed from a child’s crayon drawing and idea.  Yet magically people across the country have become enamored with the thought of moving through bank teller tubes across the country at speeds that rival that of sound.  Ignore the logistics and technicalities of it for a moment.  Ignore the fact that it would require thousands upon thousands of miles of flat straight surface, unless it is to be the most extreme roller coaster the world has ever known.  Ignore the fact that this idea is not new at all and has been around since the early 1900’s.  And as brilliant as Musk may think he is, and regardless of his success with space travel and Tesla, he can’t pull this off.  It isn’t so much the idea of Hyperloop that is frustrating.  There is nothing wrong with looking towards future possibilities, but when it compromises the attention to viable solutions it becomes detrimental.  People are not clamoring for a new way to travel between L.A. and New York right now.  But people are concerned with their daily commutes and the expense that personal transportation brings upon a household.

Pie in the sky dreaming such as the Hyperloop takes our attention away from issues that are truly important right now.  Fixing congestion, improving access and mobility, restoring our transit systems to an acceptable level of service.  Tel Aviv is gambling their transit on a personal pod idea that has never been tested and quite frankly sounds ridiculous from a pragmatic point of view.  It looks and sounds cool from a Jetson’s perspective but that’s about it.  Google is investing heavily in driver-less cars that are intended to reduce accident rates and improve efficiency.  Sounds great, except that it will do little to slow our sprawling mess; cities and waistlines.  And then there is Atlanta with its Maglev.  The Maglev isn’t really that crazy of an idea when compared to many of the others out there, but it is pretty close.

In a previous post I had summed up a MagLev as a monorail, which isn’t entirely true.  They can be at grade instead of elevated, but they are just about as useless for intercity transit.  The Maglev was designed with a handful of primary goals in mind; speed and sound reduction.  It is levitated to reduce friction and allowed a greater acceleration and top speed when compared to traditional wheels on rails.  Sounds great if you are going between New York to L.A.  Not so much if you are traveling from downtown to Turner Field.  And that has been a topic of discussion lately.  The Braves, who have been on quite the successful run as of late, want transit to the stadium and want it to be part of their new lease negotiations at Turner Field.  Most of the city wants transit to that area.  Fans want to take it to the games, the city would probably like to see it to help develop an area that has long been discussed and dreamed about, and existing residents would probably like to see an easy way to access downtown rather than by 2 interstates, an off ramp and a parking deck.  But Maglev isn’t the way, and it can easily be classified with that of the Hyperloop, personal pods, and driver-less cars.  Speed is not an issue over such a short distance and mitigating sound isn’t really that much of an issue when passing over Interstate 20 or when approaching a stadium with 40,000 of your loudest most rowdy friends. 

The primary local attraction to it is that it is futuristic and cool, and would be privately funded.*  This deserves an asterisk because it won’t be the case.  First is the acquisition of land.  Likely to be provided and paid for by the city.  See the Dome.  Secondly it will likely open at the beginning of some near baseball season.  The Braves are doing well and with a fancy new “transit” line; viola you have some packed cars for a few weeks except……

1)      The Braves aren’t known for selling out games.  In fact despite how well they have played this year they have only done it a handful of times.  And when teams like the Marlins, Padres, and Cubs come to town a ticket to a Braves game isn’t the hardest thing to acquire.  So at best the Maglev would see 81 days of heavy activity.  So unless the developer of the local Maglev plans on shutting it down the other 284 days it will likely be running at a loss….

2)      Because it won’t be convenient for the people that live in the area or could, pending redevelopment, and just about every other potential customer.  MARTA has a lot of success pulling riders from the suburbs (primarily northern) to the airport and to midtown and downtown for events.  Primarily because it is really easy.  Drive to a free park and ride, wait for a train and it is a straight shot to the destination.  For Turner Field, not so much, and yes most fans are suburbanites.  The Maglev would likely need to be routed towards Georgia State Station as Five Points would be too difficult from an engineering and cost perspective.  So that means taking a train to Five Points, transferring to one to Georgia State and then catching the Maglev.  If people already don’t like transferring to a bus at Five Points they aren’t going to like another transfer because it won’t be easy or…..

3)      Cheap.  Unless the Maglev works out some kind of deal with MARTA for transfers it will result in people carrying two transit cards and paying a total of four fares.  The beauty of the bus shuttle is that there is no additional fee to pay.  The beauty of using a traditional rail line such as continuing the streetcar or MARTA is that a transfer would be simple.  And in order to capture “choice riders” it has to be simple.  And baseball fans are choice riders.  If it isn’t they are more likely to hop in their car.  The added time of multiple transfers and multiple fares is easily mitigated by the abundance of cheap parking in this city and easy interstate access to most things.  It also does little for the existing or any potential new residents as they would be faced with the same fare and transfer conundrum for daily commutes which would result in…..

4)      The Maglev being propped up and supported by some sort of local government funds because 81 days of activity and a few commuters outside of baseball games isn’t going to keep the Maglev afloat year round.  And if that doesn’t cover the revenue/expenditure gap then the fares will be ridiculously high.  See the Las Vegas monorail at $5 per trip.  Even on New Year’s Eve no one has to clamor for a seat in their modestly sized cars.  All of this resulting in one giant…..

Missed Opportunity.  All because we became too fascinated with some new untested, and largely unsuccessful form of transportation that ignores the basic principles and components that make transit successful.  The same way the Hyperloop pulls attention away from a high speed rail solution.  The same way driver-less cars pulls us away from transitioning to a society less based on personal automobile ownership.  The same way that Tel Aviv’s pods do whatever it is that they are trying to do.  If transit is what the Braves want then it needs to be cohesive with the existing city system.  Multi-modal is great.  But when there are too many modes that require too much effort to navigate it stands no chance at being successful.  It needs to be a MARTA extension or an additional branch off the streetcar.  It need not be a Disneyland monorail type of system.  It needs to be something that invests in the neighborhood and can be regularly used by those outside of baseball games. 

If the Braves are serious about better connecting to the city then they should be serious about doing it in a way that is beneficial to more than just the game day afternoon fans.  Not only could it open the door to new and additional fans to help fill some of those empty seats, but it could turn the area into a magnet for development and activity like the neighborhoods that surround Fenway, Camden, Wrigley and hopefully what is occurring around Busch.  This doesn’t mean that the Braves foot the entire bill for a streetcar extension.  But they could contribute the same way they would have to a Maglev.  The remaining portion could be picked up by the local governments, which in all actuality would have been likely spent to keep the Maglev afloat when it triumphantly failed in the same spirit as the Detroit People Mover and the Sydney monorail (recently closed).

We hear a lot about these private-public partnerships as a means and future to do big things as government funds have been drying up.  Well here is a chance for us to do it the right way and to set an example.  Let’s stop being enamored with Jetson style ideas and get serious about pragmatic solutions. 

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